How can conscious engagement with plants, with which we’ve co-evolved since the dawn of our species, support healing in the physical, emotional and spiritual realms and help mend our separation from nature? Three brilliant herbalists/botanists, long on the cutting-edge of re-empowering the plant-human bond, share their insights. Hosted by Kathleen Harrison, plant person extraordinaire, President of Botanical Dimensions. With: Pam Montgomery, world-renowned herbalist, educator, spiritual ecologist, founder of the Organization of Nature Evolutionaries (O.N.E.), organizer of the Green Nations Gathering, author of Plant Spirit Healing and Partner Earth; Jolie Elan; founding Director of Go Wild Institute, deep ecologist, ethnobotanist, and global educator; Kami McBride, author of The Herbal Kitchen, with 25 years’ teaching experience, longtime leader of the beloved Earth Connection herb walks at Bioneers.
Jolie’s Talk is transcribed below:
Hi, everyone. [AUDIENCE: Hi.]
So my love affair with the oak trees began on my honeymoon, and it outlasted my marriage. [LAUGHTER] In 2007, my new husband, David, and I were honeymooning in Napa Valley, and the oak trees were dropping acorns by the barrel-load. You couldn’t step anywhere without stepping on acorns. And I knew that the majority of Native Peoples of California ate acorns almost every single day as a staple food. And I’d also tasted acorn food at a workshop, and it tasted like oatmeal mixed with walnuts. Seeing acorns dominate the landscape so magnificently, it got me wondering. I wonder if acorns can make a comeback as the original California cuisine.
So David and I gathered 20 pounds in 20 minutes, and my acorn adventures began. And in my wildest dreams, I never would’ve guessed that the oaks would commandeer my life, convince me to do their bidding, heal me in dreams, and open up stores of Earth wisdom that I thought was not accessible to me being non-Native.
When I first started eating acorns, I wanted a gluten-free, viable, local superfood. Don’t we all want that? But I had other motivations. I had been an itinerant activist living all over the country working on sacred site and environment campaigns, and having committed my life to David, I wanted to commit my life to the land, to the spot on Earth where I was living.
I knew that it was possible to have really deep, intimate relationships with nature, and I wanted that for myself. And so I figured I can eat my way into the web of life, [LAUGHTER] but I felt a little conflicted. I’m a Jew from New York, [LAUGHTER] and the last thing I wanted to do was appropriate anybody’s culture. My grandma, she ate chopped liver. She didn’t go for acorns. [LAUGHTER] I know I’ll never be indigenous to this land, but I am not okay with being a tourist anymore, so I threw myself into the oaks, and I learned everything that I could.
If you weighed every single living thing in North America, 20% of that biomass would be oak trees. I had to check that fact. I called the researcher, and I was like, are you sure? And she’s like, yes, I’m sure. And if you go to Mexico, 30% of the biomass is oaks. Oaks are major players around the world, major ecological players. Oaks grow in Central America, in North America, throughout Europe, Middle East, North Africa, throughout Asia, and in many places where they grow, ancient people ate acorns and honored the oak tree before they were domesticating grains. So my grandparents, great, great, great ancient ancestors, they were eating acorns in the Fertile Crescent. Maybe your people were eating acorns too.
2,000 years ago, Pliny the Elder, who was a Roman naturalist and general, said acorns constitute the wealth of many nations, and the reason for that is because acorns are incredibly nutritious. Just 10 ounces of acorns can give you all of your carbs, all of your fat, and one-third of your protein for the day. The 20 pounds that David and I gathered in 20 minutes would be most of my nutritional needs for the month.
Acorns are not only nutritious but they’re incredibly abundant. One large, valley oak tree can produce 500 to 1,000 pounds of an acorns in a year. Our Great Central Valley that provides one-quarter of all the food we eat used to be a massive oak ecosystem.I cannot even imagine how magnificent that was, with all of the wildlife that came in to eat those acorns. That acorn crop was estimated to be in the billions of pounds per year.
If oaks were solely interested in reproduction, they would be more frugal, but oaks are incredibly generous creatures. They support an entire web of life. If you take the oaks out of the system, everything else goes downhill, including the soil that’s held in place by deep roots.
So the more I learned about oak ecology, the deeper I fell in love with the oaks, and this is one of the ways that we work with the bio-intelligence of plants. We fall in love. That’s the prerequisite. So I fell in love with the oaks, and my friends were getting a little sick of the conversations so I had to spread the love.
Go Wild Institute launched our Wisdom of the Oak program which is about restoring our relationship to the land and what feeds us. And I love teaching kids in inner-city Oakland. We teach all kids K through college, but usually 4th or 5th grade, and I love saying to the kids, what town do you live in? And they’re always so proud. They have such pride. Oakland! And I say, what tree is that named after? And they—you can see it click for the first time ever. [LAUGHTER] [LAUGHING] And they’re like, ooohhh oaks. [LAUGHTER]
We start with a lesson on oak ecology and natural history, and then we go outside to prepare acorn food. And we crack, and grind and leach acorns. And basically acorns are just like tree nuts, but they’re a little more bitter so they require an extra step to process out the bitterness. You have to wash it out or leach it out. So we do that, and I make little acorn cakes, and I give each kid a little acorn cake shaped like an acorn at the end, and then we share our thoughts. And there’s usually a kid who says something like, these acorn cakes are good but it seems like a pain. Like why would you do that? And so if there’s a tree in their yard, I point to it, and I say, if we were going to grow wheat right where that tree is, what would it take? And one kid raises their hand and says we’d have to cut the tree down, and then another one says, we’d have to dig up the soil, and it goes on. We’d have to plant our wheat, and then we’d have to water our wheat, which is taking water from our rivers and our salmon. And then once your wheat is growing, all of those animals that are starving now because they don’t have acorns, they’re going to want to eat your wheat, so then you have to protect your wheat. You have to build fences, or you have to use chemicals or whatever means, and you just wait until all the animals die off so they don’t bother you, sort of what happened in the Great Central Valley. Then, once your wheat is ready, you have to cut it, and thresh it, and grind it, and then you have to do it every single year because wheat is an annual crop, so I think it’s easier to eat acorns. [LAUGHTER] So I just ask you why not plant oak trees, restore our vibrant ecosystems, and eat acorns? Clearly, nuttier ideas have taken root in California. [LAUGHTER]
Soon after I started and doing their bidding, they began to come to me in dreams. In this dream I was inside a massive grandmother oak, and the energy was building from all around, pooling from the land all around, and it was electric. And at one point the tree just could not hold that energy anymore, and it flashed as lightening, and I saw it go through the branches and the roots, and in my mind I knew this was restoring the fertility to all the land around. And I woke up electrified, like what was that? Was that my subconscious? So I had a research assignment, and what I found out is that lightening is five times as hot as the sun, and it fixes atmospheric nitrogen that’s usually unavailable, and it makes it available to the earth, hence making the land fertile again. Oaks have incredibly deep roots that go into the water table, so they’re excellent electrical conductors. The old adage goes beware of the oak, it draws the stroke. So, wow, I just dreamt that. That’s amazing. This can really happen. But oaks were not only downloading to me in my dreams. They were clearly directing me toward oak knowledge that was encoded in mythology.
Thor, the top Norse god, is associated with lightning and thunder. He’s considered an oak god. Zeus, the almighty Greek god, he’s an oak god associated with lightning and thunder. Learning this, I began to research ancient cultures, ancient oak cultures. In ancient Greece, the priestess would listen to the oak trees, the wind rustling in the oak trees, and they would interpret the word of god through the oak tree. And then the word druid, the ancient priests of the Celtic people, the word druid comes from the word deru, tree, oak, to know. So the high, holy people were the ones who knew the oaks.
The druids, and Zeus, and Thor—they’re sort of foreign to me. The oaks play a pivotal role in my Jewish mythology. Abraham, the father of the Jews, who’s also the father of Christianity and Islam, the Abrahamic religions, he first saw what became the Jewish god underneath an oak tree. The oak of Moreh, teacher tree, teacher oak. It was not just some random tree. It was an oracle tree where people throughout time went for wisdom and healing. Throughout history, oaks have served as a portal to divine wisdom, to tap into that sacred intelligence of our Mother Earth.
So seven years into my acorn adventures and my marriage, David and I separated. We’d had way too many hard times. I was dealing with recovering from childhood trauma that was laying me low, and I was super, super sad. I was sort of brought to my knees.. And then while I was down on my knees, my cat of 21 years died, and it was just super, super hard. I couldn’t find the ground underneath my feet, and that night, I remember looking at my altar that had my wedding ring and a picture of my cat right next to it, and that night, I had a dream. I was 6, and I was super scared. I needed to have all my limbs amputated, and so I ran out into this storm, and I held onto this massive oak tree, and I was crying, and this tree says, aw, honey, do you see how tall I am? Just looked up, and she was tall. She was like 200-300 feet tall. I was like, yeah, you’re really tall. She’s like, my roots go down just that deep. She says, do you see how wide my canopy is? I said, yes, really wide. She says, my roots go out that wide, so you can always come to me in a storm if you need me. And I woke up, and I found the ground under my feet. I felt solid. I felt less alone. I felt like I could go through these storms of my times, and I felt healed, and I felt like, wow, I understand about plant-spirit medicine now. These plants were rooting for me. They actually wanted me to heal.
So a few months later, I was hiking Mount Tamalpais, and I was going up for a meditation retreat, and this little tree got my attention. So trees and plants talk to me a lot, and it’s not uncommon for me, but I’ve never had a tree yell at me before. And this one said, “Hey you, hey you.” I turned around, and it was like a sapling, tanoak tree, and it was so proud, and it got my attention, and I said, “Yes?” It said, “When you get a chance, will you sit with us please?” I was like, what are you going to say to that? Of course, yes, I will. So a couple days later when my mind was clear, I sat with the tanoaks, and one thing to know about the tanoaks on Mount Tam is that they’re really, really sick. They have a disease called sudden oak death. Many people say that the tanoaks in Marin might disappear altogether. And so they’re really sick, and it’s especially sad because the acorns of tanoaks are the best-tasting acorns I have ever tasted. They taste like butter cookies. They’re amazing, and they were very prized for many of the people that lived among the tanoaks, and now they’re very sick.
So when I sat with the tanoaks, my mind got very, very clear, and I went very deep. And the tree said this to me, “We’re really sick. Our wisdom is leaving the planet. We’re so sad. We watched our people die, the people who cared for us, people who loved us, and no one loves us anymore.” And I was like, “Oh my God, that’s so sad. What can I do?” And they said, “Well, you could do ceremony for us.” And I said, “But I’m Jewish and from New York.” [LAUGHTER] Yeah. And they said, “Yeah, we’re not really happy about that either.” [LAUGHTER] Yeah. “But you’re what we have right now.” [LAUGHTER] [LAUGHS] “You’re listening. You’re listening to us.” And I thought about that, and I thought this is a very popular trail I was on. There’s thousands of people that walk by that trail. They were probably calling out, and calling out, and calling out for decades, right? And nature is doing that, calling to us saying please help me, remember me, come back to me. We need you. We need you to live in balance with us. We need you to hear us. We have things we need for you to hear.
So I know that the title of this talk is Working with the Bio-Intelligence for Wisdom and Guidance in Insane Times, and what I would say is I don’t really feel like I’m working with the intelligence of the oaks. I feel like the oaks are working with my intelligence, and I feel like the oaks are the ones that got me here to talk to you, that want me to talk to you.
It was the oaks that got me to make acorn food for the massesu.
So what I want to say is that they’re always calling to us. Nature is calling to us, and every time we connect with a plant or an animal, we align with that sacred intelligence of our magnificent, brilliant Mother Earth. It’s a way in. Our Mother Earth is so smart, and so wise, and so brilliant. I am a speck compared to that wisdom. If we can align with that intelligence, we will be part of the Earth healing herself, and we will be directed to do what we need to do.
Listen to the Panel read full transcription below