As I read Kat Anderson’s, Tending the Wild, I can’t help but be disturbed and repulsed by the European-Americans who settled California. For most of my life I paid little attention to California History. I admit this embarrassingly that I was quite ignorant for a long while about how California (where I was born and continue to live) was settled and about the people who populated this landscape before the Spanish Missions and Gold Rush. In high school I remember learning very little and in college, history was not my major, so I learned no more. Sadly I did not start to seek out knowledge until my late 20s.
This book recounts how California was prior to the invasion by the European-Americans. California was once a well-tended garden, not untouched wilderness. Every piece of California was managed in some way by the indigenous populations, using what we now call, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Early explorers left accounts documenting California’s diversity and “sheer abundance of its wildlife,” and was later described by John Muir as a “massive flower garden.”
As more and more people came to the state for gold mining and settling of the west, the deterioration of the land and of the Native people snowballed. The treatment of the Native Americans was absolutely terrible with genocide and slavery the norm rather than the exception. At one point there was a decree that any white man could kill a Native American, simply to remove them from the land so the whites could take over.
Native Americans had no sovereignty over their own land that they had lived upon for thousands of years. The earth was removed from right underneath their feet. Their landscapes degraded by mining, European style farming, and livestock grazing. The once abundant landscape of antelope and elk and geese and various migrating birds and grizzlies and salmon and sea otters was degraded to almost nothing due to a lack of care and sustainable use of land.
“The historian Alfred Crosby emphasizes that the successful exploitation of the New World, particularly California, depended on the settlers’ ability to “Europeanize the flora and fauna of the New World,” and successful they were. By the mid- to late 1800s, much of the Central Valley was devoted to mechanized, monoculture farming operations with ties to worldwide markets.”
As I read on this makes me realize how little Californians know of their very own history. It’s time for that to change. Kat explains, “by understanding the ways that native peoples established long-term relationships with the land and its creatures, we may be able to forge a new kind of relationship with nature, based on connection, that carries with it both obligations and privileges – what Californian Indians would call reciprocity.”
Last week I had the pleasure of attending a native foods workshop hosted by the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. On a gray and drizzly morning we learned about the acorn, Brome seed, soap root, and manzanita berry. As a State Park Ranger regaled us with culinary stories and demonstrations on how to use traditional Native American baskets and basalt rocks in preparing the different plants, a horticulturist from the UCSC Arboretum supplied details about the plants and their ecology.
I learned that the Native Americans had managed the California landscape for the last 1000 years. Using low intensity, slow moving fires during the rainy season in the fall and winter, the Native Americans such as the local Amah Mutsun kept the grassland and oak woodland ecosystems viable. Burning the land helped to remove excess leaf litter and duff where insects and diseases can spread. The presence of fire and smoke also promotes seed rejuvenation and germination, especially with grasses.
However, today about 96 percent of the California landscape is non native grasses and other plants brought from Europe and elsewhere. Very few places exist where native California grasses grow. One of the last places is Russian Ridge Preserve, located off Skyline Boulevard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Tastes of California
Now to the edible native California foods…
About: over 50 species in California, which can grow either as a tree, bush, or ground cover. Flowers winter through spring with berries in late summer. Some have a burl, which needs fire to activate the energy within to sprout into a new plant.
Preparation: grind dried berries to powder in a mortar and pestle; soak in cold water; repour the same water over; repeat to taste (using the same water), until water has cider consistency about 1 hour.
About: the soap root has many uses, from culinary, to soap, to poison. The Native Americans would open the root bulb and place it in a river, the soap of the root would stun fish by reducing the flow of oxygen into their gills, making them easy to catch. Both the bulb and leaves of the plant are edible, and they’re found in oak woodlands, chaparral, and grasslands.
First make an earth oven: dig a hole in ground; line with basalt rocks; build fire on top and let it burn to ash; then add the bulbs which can be wrapped in sword fern leaves; top with more basalt rocks; and repeat layers. Top with dirt and cook for about 14 hours.
Tastes like carrot and yam, eat it like an artichoke.
Brome (Bromus carinatus)
About: a native California grass that was harvested by the Native Americans. At the time of the Spanish missions, records indicate the Native Americans began to favor Brome seeds over acorns.
Preparation: after harvesting the seeds, add them to a basket and toast with hot basalt rocks. Make sure to move the rocks vigorously throughout the basket to toast the seeds and not the basket.
About: acorn porridge was probably prepared and eaten with wildflower seeds and animal fat. Black oaks are considered to have the best tasting acorns. The first crop to drop from the trees is diseased acorns, the second crop is good. After the acorns are collected they must dry in the sun, and let the acorns sit out for one year before use.
Preparation: crack the hard shell and remove; take off the skin; add starter acorn flour to a mortar; add some acorns; pound and grind interspersed with sifting. The acorns need to be ground into really fine flour. Afterwards, pour water over to leach (about ½-1 hour).
One striking detail I’ve noticed in my initial research is the Ohlone and other societies of California were not just foragers, they were harvesters of the landscape. Burning brush, sowing seeds, pruning plants. All deliberate actions taken to encourage the landscape to produce the most nutritious and desirable foods. In this way they were practicing a sort of “wild” agriculture. Wild in the sense that the harvesting took place among forests and fields. Not what we see today with commercial farms or even the neat rows of vegetables in backyard gardens.
Native American societies were the original gardeners of California.
While today there is a common misconception that fires are bad, controlled fires were successfully used by Native Americans. They tended the forests with well placed fires to clear underbrush and make space for new seedlings. Grasslands were also burned to create mineral rich topsoil to enhance the growth of edible plants. Far from being dangerous, fires were expertly manipulated to provide an essential ecological service. The main goal being food production, other benefits included the clearing of insects and improving the soil.
Oak trees can be found across the world, flourishing in nooks and crannies of almost every continent. The oak genus Quercus, contains some 600 species of oak trees that are each unique to the location and landscape with which they live. In the Santa Clara Valley, four such oaks can be found: Valley Oak, Coast Live Oak, Blue Oak, and Black Oak. Of those oaks, the Valley Oak produces the largest acorn and the Black Oak produces the sweetest acorn.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans in California the native Ohlone societies favored acorns as a supplemental source of food in their diet, harvesting the dark brown nuts for their rich fat and carbohydrate content. After the acorns were harvested from oak trees, a multi-step process was necessary to leach out the tannin content and prepare the acorn for consumption or storage. Records of this process indicate it was performed by women who worked together to grind the acorns into flour with a mortar and pestle. Once the flour was ground, it was placed in a lined basket and boiling water poured over to initiate the leaching of tannins. The prepared flour was then used to make gruel and bread, or put into granary storage for the winter.
In this modern agricultural era of California with commercial farms of walnut and almond trees, it can be hard to picture that once upon a time the beautiful and majestic oak was the main producer of consumed nuts. Our grocery stores are full of products containing almonds or walnuts, while the humble acorn is left to history. This project hopes to open the curiosity of others to the wide wonder of oaks and their bounty.
In many ways Boquete, Panama won my heart: from the stunning landscape of the highland forest; to the cool breezes arising from multiple creeks crisscrossing town; to the veritable feast of delicious and affordable food offered by home-based restaurants.
We planned to visit Panama as a way to renew our Costa Rican Visa for both ourselves and our vehicle, as we also enjoyed a weekend vacation to one of the two countries in Central America we had yet to visit.
Above all, Boquete was a short four hour drive from where we were staying in Costa Rica. Located in the mountains of Volcan Baru, in the province of Chiriquí, Boquete is nestled in a valley, 3,900 feet above sea level.
Lost Waterfall Trails. A quick drive beyond the town limits brings you to the Lost Waterfalls Trails. Keep an eye out for the sign which will guide you across a wooden bridge to reach the home of the trail keepers. There a charming cabin overlooks the valley of Boquete, as scents of orchids and other flowers float through the crisp air. To enter the park there is a small fee that helps to pay for trail maintenance. The trail follows a path through the forest, surrounded by luscious plants on all sides, where orchids and bromeliads cling to lichen covered tree trunks. The trail boasts several waterfalls with three vista points from which to view it. Plan to spend a few hours exploring the park or bring a picnic and make it a full day.
Hotel Rebequet: Opened since 1984, this small nine room hotel was home for our first night in Boquete. Located in a residential neighborhood just a short walk from main street, Hotel Rebequet offers a peaceful stay, plus a home cooked breakfast in the morning with fresh eggs as you like, toast, coffee and juice.
Pensión Topas: For the rest of our time in Boquete we stayed at Pensión Topas, a hostel operated by a German expat. The spacious grounds of the property offer a pool, gardens, river, and reading nooks. The friendly owner has tips on all the best places to see in town, and can help you book any manor of diversion.
Black & White: Located on the main street in town, Black & White is a Spanish tapas restaurant with an excellent happy hour deal. Even though the power went out during dinner (not uncommon for Central America,) we ended the night with several sangrias and multiple little plates of delectable dishes all for the nice price of $20.
Sugar and Spice: This artisan bakery makes European style baked goods, plus the American favorite – cupcakes. A variety of delightful flavors await your selection at Sugar and Spice, with the option to dine in with a mug of coffee or take to-go.
Olgas: A quaint cafe that offers breakfast in an indoor/outdoor, alfresco dining room. Enjoy a cup of coffee from beans grown at one of the local coffee farms as you have breakfast.
Restaurante Las Orquideas: A small restaurant, operated out of the home of a local family, their $4 lunch will satisfy your hunger. Dine in their enclosed patio on a meal that comes with a choice of meat (we had tuna), potatoes, salad, and tea.
Moments from around Costa Rica taken on my iphone. Last year we lived in the region of the Southern Pacific Coast. A few weeks were spent in Dominical, a popular surf town, and the remainder of the six months in a small town called Tres Rios de Coronado. The town doesn’t exist on most maps, probably because there are only about fifteen homes, a small market, a school, and two restaurants. A lovely place, far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life.
This past weekend I joined a tree walk in the Barron Park Neighborhood of Palo Alto. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to take photos of nature and learn something new, I made this my Saturday activity. The tree walk was well attended, led by a knowledgable local arborist who took us to twenty-two different trees in two hours.
Strawberry Tree (Arbutus Marina):
Native to California and regions with a Mediterranean climate, the drought-tolerant Arbutus Marina has beautiful red bark, delicate flowers, and fruit. When I used to live in Santa Cruz I rented a back-house that was surrounded by these trees, which can grow up to thirty feet tall, dripping with small round fruit that are reminiscent of a raspberry. The fruit seemed to be there year round, constantly falling to the ground and feeding a rather large family of squirrels. On the tree walk we learned the fruit of the Marina is actually edible! So I tried one, it has a lightly sweet and earthy flavor. I wish I knew this before, I would have been the squirrels’ competition for the abundant fruit!
This tree stood out with its perfectly yellow leaves, ovalish in shape with undulating edges. Framed by a classic car the Victorian Box was an excellent photo opportunity. Part of the Eucalyptus family, this Australian native tree is well-known for its honey produced by bees. During the spring the tree produces fragrant white flowers that eventually turn into fruit that is orange and woody.
Canary Island Pine:
An evergreen tree named after its native home, the Canary Islands, this pine grows in subtropical environments with varying amounts of rainfall. As a drought-tolerant tree, it can live with less than eight inches of rain a year. Lush with pine needles, they absorbs mist from the air, allowing the trapped water to drip to the ground below and absorb into the earth.
Last on the walk, the mosaic tree is not an actual tree, but an art installment by the artist Christine Heegaard. The sculpture is called, “Lives,” representing a tree in all seasons. The sculpture is covered in mosaic tile with shapes of fruit and even a squirrel climbing on the trunk.
The year 2015 was full of travel, change, and growth, but I should also add – full of anxiety and uncertainty. Even though I finally pursued my dream of travel by taking a road trip down to Costa Rica and allowed myself to open to creativity along the way, I continued to face fears and struggled with opening up to others.
This year has taught me so much and I feel that I am in a better place than before. Remembering back to January, I was a complete stress ball, worried about driving through Mexico and Central America, expecting the worst. Yet here I am, the end of the year, back in the US.
I am grateful for the opportunity I had to travel with my partner and for all that has happened, all the places I visited, and for all those I met. But most importantly, I am incredibly grateful for the loved ones in my life – family and friends. Without them nothing would have been possible. Family and friends saw us off in the beginning of the year with words of well-wishes and they took me back in when I returned with nothing to my name but the three bags I carried. This year I learned how much family means to me and how amazing all the members of my family are. They cared for me, supported me, and took me in when I needed it most. And I can’t forget those friends who cheered me on, read my blog posts, and kept in touch even when I was thousands of miles away.
2015 was a life changing journey and that was because I allowed myself to follow my dream, faced fears, and embraced the support of family and friends.
On that journey I lived in many places. Embarking from Santa Cruz, to a month and a half in San Diego, to three weeks in Mexico, to a week traveling through Central America, a full six months of living in Costa Rica; back again to San Diego, then a month stint in Hollister and a few weeks in Boulder Creek before finding my way to my new home in the Bay Area. I can’t believe all the places I lived and the nomadic lifestyle I embodied.
The following photos are my memories of 2015, all the places I lived, traveled to, and had the privilege to explore. As the year comes to an end, I think back to where I’ve been as I also look forward to the new year and all the promise that is holds, new places to explore, and adventures waiting to happen.
In the beginning of the year, from the end of January to mid March, we lived in the South Park neighborhood of San Diego as we prepared for our final departure. This picture was taken on a late afternoon walk, overlooking downtown San Diego.
Before officially crossing the border into Mexico we spent the night in an Arizona border town. While driving through the desert our van got a flat tire, setting us back three hours and delaying our departure out of the country.
Our first night in Mexico was spent in the historic town of Alamos. A Friday night, we were kept up till the wee hours of the morning from sounds of music and revelers. With a long day of driving ahead of us we awoke at 7am to explore the town before continuing on our way.
Next we stopped for the night in Mazatlan. Where we encountered El Diablo’s cave and our van was broken into in the middle of the night. Luckily only a bag containing shampoo and kleenex was stolen.
Driving six to eight hours per day, we eventually made it to Guadalajara, a sprawling city that only a few weeks later hit the news headlines. Havoc in the city was released when a local crime group shot a police helicopter from the sky and created road blocks with burning trucks.
Ending our Mexico excursion in Palenque, we visited the ancient ruins and explored nearby Agua Azul and waterfalls. This stop was added to our itinerary last-minute when I learned my mom visited in the late 70s.
After leaving Mexico we spent three nights in Guatemala, staying the most time in Antigua, full of colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. However, leaving Guatemala ended up being a memorable experience. We got lost in Guatemala City for three hours, fruitlessly looking for the Panamerica Highway among a jumble of city streets with no names. Eventually we paid a taxi driver $10 to lead us out.
After Guatemala was a quick tour of Central America with the goal to get to the tropics of Costa Rica as soon as possible. We spent one night in San Salvador, El Salvador before a grueling twelve-hour drive through El Salvador and Honduras to reach Leon, Nicaragua. Exhausted we
immediately went to sleep and took no time to take photos of this part of our trip except for a few shoots while driving. The drive through Honduras was only two hours, but here is where we encountered our first attempt at bribing. At a military stop point the guard spoke in perfect English, jokingly asking us for money, which we replied lightheartedly that we had none!
Arrival! We made it to Costa Rica after a full month of traveling. Our eyes and hearts soared with the lush jungle scenery. Costa Rica became our home for the next six months with several weeks in Manuel Antonio and Dominical before settling in Tres Rios de Coronado.
After three months in Costa Rica it was time to renew our Visa. We spent three days in Boquete, Panama, a magical and unexpected place. Breezes from the many rivers criss-crossing the town cooled the warm and floral scented air. Flowers were everywhere. We enjoyed hiking the surrounding mountain range and relished their inexpensive food.
This trip was everything and nothing that I expected. 2015 will forever remain the time of growth and challenge. The time when I followed my dreams and took big risks. Thank you 2015 for all that you have taught me.
As anyone who has visited Costa Rica knows, the country is rich with beaches. This is due to Costa Rica being surrounded by the ocean, with the Pacific to the west and the Caribbean to the east. In fact, there is 1,290 kilometers (801 miles) of coastline offering a seemingly endless supply of beaches to visit.
During my time in Costa Rica I became acquainted in particular with the beaches of the Southern Pacific Coast, stretching from Manuel Antonio to Coronado. In previous posts I wrote about Manuel Antonio and Dominical, but now I would like to share a few of the beaches we frequented the most often.
Part of Parque Nacional Marino Ballena, this beach is located next to the Beach Club, a hotel and restaurant. The beach is open to visitors all week, except Tuesday when locals have private access. The Beach Club provides safe and secure parking as well as excellent food for lunch. Everytime I visited the beach it was virtually empty, truly giving the impression that you are at the end of the world, miles from civilization. Coconut trees, almond trees, and other jungle vegetation edge onto the beach where little hermit crabs can be seen scurrying across the sand. You may find a pretty shell, but most likely it is already inhabited. If you are lucky you will be at the beach when a family of local Capuchin monkeys travel on their way through a tree-top road network only known to them.
This vast expanse of beach gives a rather rugged impression with mangrove trees crowding onto the brown sand. When the tide is low the crashing waves seem to be almost a mile from the beach, with the sand covered in tide pools, waiting for the ocean to rise again. The beach is popular with local fisherman who spend hours standing on rocky outcroppings under the hot sun. There is not much shade on the beach, which becomes uncomfortable after a while. Do not be fooled by the pictures below, when we visited the sun felt like it was pummeling us with its hot rays, overwhelming our senses with heavy hot air.
Perhaps this beach is better left to the turtles that it is named for. Every July through December four different turtle species (including leatherback and hawksbill turtles) arrive during the night, when the moon is full, to lay the next generation of eggs. Reserva Playa Tortuga is a local nonprofit that studies the turtle habitat, maintains land, and provides education to volunteers and locals alike. If you are interested in protecting turtles, they happily accept volunteers year-long.
Known as the whale’s tail, this beach is the popular destination of the up and coming town also known as Uvita. The beach extends out into the ocean in the shape of a whale’s tail, which can be seen on a map or from an airplane when the tide is out. Or you can visit the beach at low tide to walk the entire tail which is covered in sand except for the very end which is made of rocks. Out in the open ocean beyond is coral reef popular with snorkelers. Because of the reef, the beach is covered with little pink, purple, and orange shells. We visited at low tide and enjoyed swimming in the ocean with gentle waves. The water is quite warm, but at least it keeps you refreshed from the hot sun and air. Because this beach is part of the national park there is a $5 fee to enter as well as cost for parking. But the sight of the tail is worth it for at least one visit.
My absolutely favorite beach, Playa Ventanas, is known for its two caves that open from the beach out to the open ocean. When the tide is low you can walk into the caves, but watch out for the incoming tide. At high tide the ocean crashes through the caves with every swelling of the waves. Water bursts out as it funnels through with a loud rushing sound that brings to your attention the mighty power of the ocean. The beach offers a perfectly shaded area for picnics and bbqs. My favorite part of this beach was swimming out past the waves and floating in the water for as long as possible. The waves are not good for surfing, but perfect for swimming and playing. While floating in the ocean, there is a beautiful view of lush green hills covered in the vegetation of the jungle, usually with large billowing clouds gathering at the precipice.