Monthly Archives: September 2013

Paw Paw Time!!!

It’s finally paw paw time in eastern Ohio.  I’ve been keeping an eye on several patches of these trees in the woods near my home, watching their development from small, peanut-sized fruits, and eagerly anticipating their ripening into mango-sized beauties!

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this one, the paw paw (Asimina triloba) is a small deciduous tree native to the eastern US from zones 5-8, that produces the largest native fruit of North America.  It’s closely related to the ylang-ylang, soursop, and custard apple, though unlike its tropical relatives, the paw paw is the only member of its family to grow in temperate climate zones.  It prefers to grow in very fertile, well-drained, hilly woods in the shade of larger trees.  This Old Earth gem of the woods has been cherished by Native American peoples for hundreds of years before introducing it to European colonists.  On an interesting side note, its leaves are the only known food source for zebra swallowtail caterpillars.  For you herbalists out there, a decoction of the inner bark is a natural insecticide and an effective remedy for head lice.

The fruit is not only nutritious, but absolutely delicious!  When ripe it has the texture of a banana with the juiciness of a mango.  The flavor far surpasses any other fruit, in my opinion.  I’d say it tastes like a cross between a banana, a mango, and vanilla custard.  It has more vitamin C than an orange, and more potassium than a banana.  It’s also the only fruit known to contain ALL essential amino acids.  But perhaps my most favorite thing about the paw paw is that you’ve got to connect with nature in order to enjoy it.  This fruit is a unique gift of the eastern woodlands, which is where you have to go to find it.  The only other way to get it is to grow it yourself from seed which takes time.  It is not commercially available because the fruit bruises easily and has a very short shelf life when picked.

Once you find a patch of paw paws, you’ve got to keep an eye on them as autumn approaches because the window of opportunity is small and humans are by no means the only creatures eagerly awaiting their ripening.  Birds, deer, foxes, coyotes, opossums, squirrels, and raccoons all love them, so if you wait too long, they WILL beat you to them. As soon as they ripen they begin to fall to the ground, especially on windy or stormy days/nights.  Before this point I will typically check them once a week as autumn draws near, by gently squeezing a few fruits from multiple groves.  (Some groups ripen before others depending on individual micro-climates)  Technically, if you want to get ahead of the competition, there’s a point of early ripeness when you can pick them.  Once they soften enough to give under a little pressure, like a peach or avocado, they’ll be ready for picking. This way, you’ll get them before they fall within easy reach of most critters.  Even though they’re ready for picking at this point and can be eaten, you’ll want to let them set at room temperature for a few days to a week for the flavor to develop as they fully ripen.  Also keep in mind that unless they are at the stage of early ripeness when you pick them, they won’t continue to ripen after being picked like other fruits will.  So there’s no point in picking them before this point.

As mentioned earlier, the fruits don’t keep well as they have a short shelf life.  But you can extend your harvest by slowing their ripening in the refrigerator.  For the best flavor, you’ll want them to get ridiculously ripe.  Like bananas, they will turn brown or black, but this is good news for paw paws.  You’ll experience the fullest flavor at this point; though don’t wait so long that they begin to shrivel.  To eat them, it’s just a matter of cutting into them length-wise all the way around and twisting them into two halves, like you would an avocado.  There will be multiple seeds in a row down the center.  You can pop them out or eat around them with a spoon, scooping the flesh out from the skin.  If you’re a fruit connoisseur, it’s easily the tastiest fruit you’ll ever enjoy and the most rewarding to obtain.

If you’ve somehow managed to eat your fill, or have collected enough to carry you into the winter months; the best way to preserve them is to scoop out the pulp and freeze it.  It keeps very well this way and retains a good flavor upon thawing.  It will oxidize a little bit, turning light brown once frozen, but it won’t affect taste or quality.  Paw paw puree has a million and one culinary uses, though I’ve yet to experiment with it very much.  However, I have found that it makes an incredible smoothie (try it with ice cream) and makes a better substitute for any recipes calling for bananas. I plan on trying a batch of paw paw bread this season.  I can hardly wait!

As excited as I am with what I’ve collected so far, there are far more out there that have not quite ripened enough for picking yet.  I’m eager to get back out there in a few days to a week and grab some more.  So to anyone out there in zone 5 with access to some uncorrupted, healthy woods…..  Now’s the time to start looking!  Get out there!  You’ve got maybe a couple of weeks!

One quick point I’d like to make, is to be respectful of whichever woods you choose to search for or collect this fruit (or any natural resource for that matter).  Since you’ll likely be off trail, be mindful of where you’re stepping at all times, not just for your own safety, but for the well-being of other life forms in the woods as well, plant and animal alike.  When collecting any wild edibles, be mindful of the “rule of thirds.”  That is, take no more than 1/3rd of what’s available in any given area, leaving 1/3rd for the other animals that rely on the same food source and 1/3rd for the plant’s own purposes.  Though, since paw paw trees rely on their fruit being eaten in order to propagate themselves, you can get away with taking a bit more so long as you don’t throw the seeds in the trash after you eat the fruits. In fact I always make a point of saving every viable paw paw seed in order to show my thanks by planting those seeds in suitable locations to further the species.  Remember, we humans are not the only species around with needs and we all rely on each other in the big picture anyway.  So let’s keep and preserve the balance so that we can continue to enjoy this marvelous fruit for generations to come!

Mitakuye oyasin!  Unci Maka, tecihila na lila pilamaya lo!

~Mato Inila (Steve)~

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You can see how easy to miss they are if you’re not looking for them.

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Three of a kind!

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Doubles!

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A full house!

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When there are multiple fruits in a cluster, it’s best to wait until all three are ready to pick, rather than risk damaging the skin of the unripe ones.

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Not too shabby for day one!
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Love, Death, and The Food Chain

In my life as a naturalist, I’ve encountered some pretty wild views on what it means to be a respectful human being living on planet Earth.  From an Old Earth perspective, the most persistent and popular issues I see that people seem to have trouble wrapping their heads around, is the morality of eating meat and our place in the food chain/circle of life. I’ll get right to it.  Look in any biology text book, or Google “the food chain” and you’ll find a trend that should be more disturbing than you might realize. The problem I have with 95% of the food chain info and depictions out there is that humans tend not to be included.  On a related note, I’d also like to challenge a popular question thrown at me recently; that question being, “How can you claim to love animals if you eat meat?”  This is my response…..

It is possible to love an animal AND kill it for food. What it boils down to is an understanding of equality; that is, we all partake in the same food chain. Humans may have evolved to be ahead of the curve, but this added intelligence merely makes us a top omnivore, and even top predators are prey when the circumstances are favorable.  Sorry to burst the ego bubble, but humans didn’t escape the food chain.

It’s all about context and perspective. Does a mosquito see a human and think to itself, “Oh that’s a human; they’re not on the menu anymore.”?  Of course not.  It’s more likely thinking, “Mmmmm, another warm body for me to extract some nutritious blood.”  We must acknowledge that we humans are also food when the circumstances are ripe for other predators or parasites to take advantage. Countless organisms, simple or complex, still see us as food; everything from the bot fly, to the saltwater crocodile, to the occasional Kodiak bear.  Even a cougar will stalk a small child that lags behind on a wilderness hike.  Again…. context and perspective.  Is a Wall Street stock broker still the “superior” species when you to drop him with no tools and no survival knowledge into the Alaskan wilderness?  A bear or a moose will definitely trump your human “superiority” without your boom stick.

It baffles me to no end that people can understand evolution, see the symbiosis of Earth’s food chain, and yet forget to factor us into the equation or worse yet, place us above it.  There seems to be this misconception that humanity has “graduated” from the food chain and that anything not human is just “stuff” for us to eat or play with. This is a dangerous illusion and our species has confused itself with it, much to our detriment.  We must understand that “Humanity is only one thread in the web of life. What we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” ~Chief Si’ Ahl (Seattle in our language), of the Duwamish tribe from what is now Washington state.~

Humanity is but one type of cell within the greater super organism called, Earth. The many indigenous cultures of the world still understand this fact, and they respect it. They respect it so much in fact, that they have come to LOVE the Earth and all of its creatures. Yet they still hunt.  How can this be?  The answer is that they simply do not have the same fear of, and detachment from death that “civilized” humans do. Death is a natural and necessary part of the continuation of life and not to be feared.  None the less, most humans today fear death and that fear has transferred over and become confused amongst a popular movement, that movement being a rekindled compassion for animals.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that compassion for animals is wrong.  It’s an absolute necessity.  What I’m saying is that a healthy understanding of life, death, and its place (OUR PLACE) in the circle of life might change or enhance your perspectives on life, death and food.  Animals are fortunate in that they naturally understand and accept this, just as many people intimately connected to nature still do.  Love is usually associated with life, but love is essential to death as well.  But the only context where love and death meet in modern society is at a funeral.  I challenge you to see that love and death can and do meet in places and circumstances other than funeral parlors or psychopathic incidents.  Love and respect for the animal you’ve just killed for food is what makes sure you never take more than you need and that you honor its life by letting no part go to waste.  This form of love and compassion is a powerful reminder of responsible environmental stewardship.  As you’ll likely read about often here at Old Earth Project, indigenous cultures, like those of the Native Americans, hold very valuable old world views that modern humanity can learn a lot from about moving forward toward cultural and environmental harmony.

That being said, it is the treatment of animals, the mass production and mass killing of them for food that is despicable (and harmful to our own health). There’s definitely a need vs greed element to be aware of.  One might say a hunter is evil for killing a deer when he can just buy beef in the market.  But consider how the animals live and die on both sides.  Sneak a peek at cattle life in any big name beef operation before you judge the guy who takes his own wild game.  You have to factor in the quality of life lived, not just duration.  There’s also a health element to consider when you buy your meat from commercially raised livestock.  The many hormones, antibiotics, preservatives and God knows what else in commercial meats might make you see more value in raising your own livestock or hunting your own game.  The problem with hunting in America, is that it is getting mixed up in gun culture when it SHOULD be about food culture.  There are definitely many people that shouldn’t be hunting, and I’d like to give every sport hunter I meet a baton to the noggin.  But a hunter who kills only what he needs, and shows genuine gratitude for the life he/she just took will get more respect from me than the person who loves the deer enough to buy a bag of Tyson “gulag” beef from Walmart.

We should all be connected to how our food is grown, or killed. If you have no emotional stake in your steak, then you shouldn’t be eating it.  Otherwise you risk eventually coming to take “food animals” and their environment for granted.  It is because indigenous cultures are emotionally invested in their food, that they are intrinsically connected to the surrounding environment.  So they notice quickly when a particular plant or animal is becoming scarce because of over harvesting/hunting.  Many indigenous peoples will even divide their tribe and spread out over a larger area as their community grows, to avoid over-taxing the environment.  Again….. We can learn a lot from the Old Earth perspectives of simple people frequently stereotyped as “primitive” or “savage”.

So, if Earth is a constantly evolving, writhing mass of organisms living off of, next to, on top of, or inside one another for collective benefit….. all cells that make up the greater super organism we call Earth, than we need to take a look around at the degradation we’re causing and ask ourselves this……  Are we going to continue to destroy the life we depend on to survive, like a virus killing its host?  Or are we going to use our super-complex brains to remember our symbiotic harmony as a species not above, but amongst every other species?

The Earth will keep going with or without us, eventually healing and re-balancing whatever we dish out in making things uninhabitable for humanity.  Species rise and fall through change and time.  Paleontology has shown us that.  Intelligence can only carry us so far.  We still need clean air, clean water, and a clean environment to maintain healthy minds, bodies, and spirits for sustaining ourselves.  Without these things our ability to survive, or at the very least thrive, is threatened along with the rest of the food chain. So can we let go of our collective human ego long enough for our collective human intelligence to find ways to continue to evolve while respecting the balance?  Can we reacquaint ourselves with death as a natural and necessary part of life, so that our perceptions are not corrupted by fear?  Perhaps then it will be easier to love and respect more than just our own species to really understand what symbiosis truly means for planet Earth.

Mitakyue Oyasin

(A Lakota phrase meaning “WE ARE ALL (humans, animals, insects, plants, minerals, etc) RELATED”)

By: Steven Butcher, aka: Quiet Bear

*** Here I present a popular scientific depiction of the food chain…. accurate, though lacking participation by humans…..

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*** And then the food chain modern humanity seems to be following……

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