by Ignatzio Ignoffo
My wife and I visited Boonville late last July. We came to see some friends on the weekend of the Not So Simple Living Fair, which sounded like the sort of thing we would be interested in. Perhaps humanity can survive the "cheap" carbon energy era with far fewer of us living a radically different way of life. (After all, didn't poor little Cuba adapt to the abrupt end of Soviet oil?)
En route, we spent a pleasant afternoon at the Jack London State Park. The author of "The Iron Heel" was also a back to the land sort of guy.
With between 9 and 12 presentations going on at once at Simple Living, I realized that we could attend only a few of the many interesting offerings. We decided to focus on wild foods, beginning with the "Native Uses of Herbs" by Corine Pearce. Ms. Pearce is a young Pomo woman. She endeared herself to me immediately by rejecting the loudspeaker's injunction to delay everything for 15 minutes to allow for latecomers. Corine had a lot of information to share and a limited amount of time. I quietly wondered aloud if such a timetable punctuality was required. The woman seated ahead of me turned around and politely explained that late starts caused delays throughout the program last year.
With the accompaniment of her mother, Corine opened with a somewhat ominous prayer song. Two long tables were covered with Pomo baskets, basketmaking material, and a variety of other plants. Corine has been making baskets with her family since she was nine years old. She explained the varieties of willow and the importance of harvesting before the full moon. Her daughter's baby basket was passed around along with a 300-year old family heirloom basket (in surprisingly good condition). We were assured that "Pomo basket making is the best in the world," and "invasive plants are just evil." Furthermore, California was not an untamed wilderness when the white settlers arrived, "but a garden" which the Pomo tended. She explained the uses of fern stems and the triangular blades of sedges. (She has rescued some plants from the Willits Bypass desecration.) We learned about California bay or pepperwood: a loud, talkative plant that keeps out low spiritual energy and bugs! Additionally, the roasted nuts are very tasty with a coffee-like stimulus. Manzanita is "a very magical plant," and a good remedy for poison oak. The cocoons are sometimes made into "spirit rattles." We learned of uses for elderberry (edible berries), Yerba Santa ("Indian chewing gum"), wormwood (foot baths), Angelica (a good friend of the Creator), and even poison oak (a dark dye). Corine's knowledge and enthusiasm quickly filled the 80 minute time slot. She took questions, but mine went unasked: Are those tats encircling your strong, young arms Pomo or Goth? Obviously quite off-topic. By the time the bell was rung our original group of perhaps 15 had grown to over 60.
During the short break we enjoyed some tasty dolmas from a Ukiah food truck and muffins sold for the benefit of the Anderson Valley Teen Center. We decided to spend the next session with David Severn in the Conversation Cafe. The topic was "California Indians with great respect."
By the time we arrived the gazebo was nearly full and only one seat was open. As I went to sit on the floor beside my wife, a 20-ish Asian woman got up and insisted that I take her seat. Although it confirmed my decrepit elder status, I accepted her offer. Leading the conversation with David was Barbara Pearce, Corine's mother. Someone suggested that we introduce ourselves and state what we hope to get out of the conversation. When my turn came I described myself as a retired locomotive driver from Chicago seeking to understand how Native Americans preserved their culture in the face of genocidal repression. I mentioned that I had recently read a Chris Hedges book that detailed the misery of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Next up was my spouse, Janis, who simply (absurdly) identified herself as "Iggy's wife." She was curious about the symbolism of the tepee poles. Doesn't the longest one represent the umbilical cord? Barbara tackled this one immediately: the Pomo lived in wikiups and she had no idea what symbolic meaning the plains Indians attached to their teepees! I was a bit embarrassed for some reason, but silly questions that others asked gave me a better perspective. A 40ish dude wanted to know "What is the meaning of life?" And a maiden sincerely wondered if her dreams were important. (Only to yourself, sweetheart, was my unspoken retort.) Barbara's patient answer to the former question was also the answer to my own query: family. First and foremost her immediate family, her three daughters and grandchildren and then the larger families of her community and of all humankind. A wise answer to fool's questions. She also answered more down-to-earth inquiries such as the effect of casino profits: A few get jobs and money, others get disenrolled from the tribe. (See the story by Eric Enriquez in the Anderson Valley Advertiser last year.)
I'm not sure what else we talked about, but the time passed all too quickly and Barbara was soon ending with another Pomo prayer chant. (Surprisingly, to a recovering Roman Catholic such as myself, Barbara mentioned that she was a mass-attending Catholic.)
For the lunch break there was an abundance of available food. The fare may have been healthy and delicious but presentation is everything and the mess hall ambience may have been community-building, but we touristas decided to walk over to the Boont Berry Farm Store. After securing our pizza and salads — both quite good — we looked around for seating. Another diner was reading the AVA. I commented that it is a great little newspaper. (I've been a faithful reader for nearly 25 years.) He promptly groused that he preferred his fiction in novel form. I might have said something about the myth of objectivity, but I didn't.
After lunch Corine gave another interesting presentation: "Acorn Processing." She took us through the collecting, drying, leeching, grinding and baking of various acorns. Unlike her earlier presentation, this one was very down-to-earth. (My imagined level.) She even provided a batch of acorn mush for tasting — bland, but palatable. It was all very informative, but I could not help wondering how many of us could be fed on acorns.
For me, people-watching was a big part of the fun. Many in the crowd were in my own senior cohort, but there were also a good showing of those of childbearing age. We have two granddaughters and the problems their generation will confront give me pause. Anyway, there were three obviously pregnant women attending Corine's talk. One, close to term, was with her own attentive mother. Her child would have the benefit of a supportive, extended family. The second mom-to-be was alone but looked healthy and asked pertinent questions of Corine. Perhaps her husband was off learning "small engine repair" or how to skin rabbits. Then we came to soon-to-be mother number three: a malnourished looking figure, constantly rocking back and forth on her heels, a haunted, lonely expression on her face. (Do you remember that scary-looking female character in Fritz Lang's Metropolis?) What kind of home would she be making for her child? She must be trying to do right or she would not be here.
After a few minutes observing strangers, I concocted life stories that probably reflect only my own doubts and insecurities. But how much do you really want to know about acorn processing? As Corine concluded her presentation she was so sincerely happy to be showing her cultural heritage that she choked up and nearly cried. Hers will be a hard act to follow.
Our final class of the day was "Plant Medicine for Family and Farm," given by Mary Pat Palmer. At 3:30 someone was on the very loud public address system talking about the evening program of music and dancing and a car which was about to be towed. Corine had contended with a little chainsaw noise earlier but she worked around it. Ms. Palmer was not to be deterred. For at least the first three minutes of her talk she was totally inaudible under the blare of the loudspeaker. I wondered how she could be so oblivious. Finally, the announcements concluded and Mary Pat could be heard. (We were seated near the front.) She took us through the various uses of mugwort, artemnesia, sage, chicory, yarrow root, thyme and more — much of it was familiar from the morning presentation. Along the way we learned that "luscious marijuana buds wish to be pollinated." The happy young couple who squatted down in the dirt beside my chair looked like they may have recently enjoyed a relationship with the popular local herb. Their dirty feet and unkempt clothing suggested that they had been camping out for some time. Their bodily scent prompted me to ask Jan if we should move upwind, but she assured me that the breeze was dissipating the fragrance. Many plant samples were passed around and the young couple seemed to have trouble deciding how closely to examine them and when to pass them along.
There was much more to the Fair. The workshops continued all day Sunday. We opted instead for a truncated ride on the Skunk Train. I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to the people who put this Fair together. It points in the direction of a sustainable, communal future, hopefully some of our grandchildren will get there.
The Midwest already has a considerable number of self-reliant farming communities: the Amish. Like the Pomo, they survive by focusing on their large families (and a lot of hard physical labor and very simple living). Of course, they are quite religious and socially conservative. I have never seen the future and I don't know what will work, but let a thousand flowers bloom and don't trust anyone over 30!