Post 58: Zero-Carbon Dating

Notes from Kay:

Last week I mentioned a post I had just written might have been somehow erased. I can now say it has been lost forever. Argh. It’s a frustrating loss, but not tragic, as human losses go. (I’ll rewrite it when I can handle the thought.)

At some point in the near future, this blog will become an every-other-week affair for a while. I have a book contract that expires at the end of the year. Happily, the book is more or less written, but it needs a new afterword, final edit, bibliography, footnotes, photos, etc., so quite a bit of time is still involved. I’ve been trying to work on both the book and, but it may involve more screen time than my body can handle. In the meantime, there are all those posts you haven’t gotten to yet! I’ll update you on all of this soon.

There’s a part of summer we love here at the wabi sabi microfarm: the season of ripening dates. Our dating season! Before the commitment of winter . . .

About five years ago, I was walking the couple of miles to the newly opened “natural” grocers (I’m not going to diss them with a name like “Homely Despot,” but there’s a lot of stuff that’s not natural sold there). On the way, I passed a short but stocky palm tree growing on a public median between two residential streets. The bright orange spot of color caught my eye. Since it wasn’t in anyone’s yard, I felt okay standing there, examining the tree more closely. The orange spot came from a thousand cascading ribbons coming from the base of the fronds. They were loaded with olive-sized, orange fruits. They had to be dates. Maybe about ten percent of them had turned a golden brown. I figured these were the ripe ones.

Now, I knew this was not a coconut palm. No sign of coconuts. I was quite sure it was a date palm. So these fruits were dates. They were so much smaller than the medjool dates I loved, the dates most commonly offered for sale in stores. You’ll pay $50 plus shipping for a 5-pound box of medjools from Hadley’s, the huge market you’ll see on the way from Tucson to Los Angeles. (If you stop, try one of their expensive date shakes.)

I figured these little dates must be related. I picked one and popped it in my mouth. Yep. It had the same exact taste and texture as the medjools.  (I always hear “drooling” in that name.) Sweet and sugary-soft. But these were free for the taking. And right at easy-picking height for a human. (The trees, I’ve since learned, do get taller, but they’re slow-growing.)

Dates and pits
Dates and pits give an idea of the limited amount of “meat” on these fruits.

Though the flesh of this little date tasted like the medjool, its mass was small compared to the pit. I’d say the seed occupied about 80 percent of the already small fruit. Certainly, these dates were not commercially viable. But c’mon! They were free, easy to harvest, and in the mouth the flesh slipped cleanly and easily off the seed.

Kay picking dates
Me and a tree (one at just the right height. Canary palms grow slowly.)  

I harvested a bunch and took them home, putting them in a bowl next to the laptop for snacking on. They were perfect for that, precisely because eating them took some time. If I’d been snacking on medjools, I would have put away a lot of solid sugar in a very short time. But these were like sunflower seeds in the shell, in that took a while to get at the prize, and the prize was small. It was a good solution for anyone who had developed the bad habit of eating while working onscreen.

I didn’t know then that this tree was called a canary island date palm—something clearly not native to the Sonoran Desert. I’d never seen a palm tree of any kind growing among the saguaros in the desert, but it seems I might have. That iconic picture of oases in the desert, surrounded by palm trees, could have described native palm tree populations in southern California and Arizona, growing around a natural spring or seep, often in a canyon. People often burned them to kill insects, to get rid of the “skirt” of dead fronds building up on the tree, and to foster an increase in baby plants. The idea is similar to our emerging forest practices—which aren’t really emerging at all; indigenous tribes have managed American forests since long before Columbus. Smokey the Bear needs to step aside for that.

But palms need sufficient water, too. In recent decades, humans have slurped up their supplies. So natural, diverse palm communities have mostly died. (Not to mention the stands that were chopped down for silly reasons.)

In any case, I have no idea if my date picking from this imported tree could be called “desert harvesting,” but I didn’t care. It was a sweet treat. This is a desert city.

We later found four beautiful trees on Broadway—a busier street to harvest on, but this particular type of palm provided its own cover for the picker. Its long, droopy fronds almost covered us. The fronds distinguished it from fan palms, which grew leaves like arms with the fingers spread. They seemed to me to be more common. But not what I looked for. Other palms here produce larger dates, but not within the reach of my ladders.

As we harvested dates on Broadway, a woman on the sidewalk came up to us and said hello. We hadn’t noticed her until then—she must have been hidden by the palm fronds—but she opened a fist to show us about a dozen golden brown dates.

Kay holding date
The last fruit of the season?

“Is this what you’re collecting?” She seemed to have a clue about things. All the dates were ripe.

“Yes!” I said, “They’re dates. Try one.” I popped one from my own hand into my mouth.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling, and walked on.

These kind of interactions are rare, and often just as short. Still, it made me happy.

We (okay, I) soon ate up our whole harvest of dates, and wanted to go get more. Terry came back from a circle of errands, which was going to include a stop on Broadway to check on the stage of the three trees’ fruit.

“I’ve got bad news,” he said. “All three trees have been given severe haircuts. Not only are all the dates gone, but only their top fronds are left, sticking up like spikes on a mohawk.”

I wasn’t surprised. Plants are messy, and most people feel the need to neaten them up. Well, I couldn’t expect them to do a controlled burn—three palm trees on fire in front of the traffic on Broadway.

Dates on the ground
If I’d had my act together I could have snacked on these. Instead, the critters and soil will have them.

I have a plant encyclopedia that’s quick to point out the messy drawbacks for every fruit-bearing tree it lists. Of my African sumac it says, “Pea-sized yellow or red berrylike fruit grow in clusters on female tree, can be messy on pavement.” My fig tree is described as a “top-notch ornamental tree, especially . . . where it can be illuminated from beneath . . . [but] fruit drop is a problem . . .” * Another source, online, calls the dates of the canary palm “ornamental fruit.”

We don’t recognize food as food unless it comes from the store, in a package. Most people would die if set down in a wild place for a few weeks, even a wild place just outside of town.

Anyway, there are too many people on the planet for everyone to forage. Modern agriculture feeds us in miraculously huge numbers, but only by unsustainable methods, using pesticides, fertilizers, altered genetics, and lots of water.

We need to start walking in a different direction. To get to know and love Nature directly, as our source of life. To let it nurture us. our physical bodies (on both ends! See Post 16), until we become part of its still-working cycles. To consciously experience our place within them. Then, I think, we’ll begin to treat Nature like our mother.

That, it seems to me, is the main reason to forage.

*I’m not going to cite this source, because I’m quoting from an old edition. I’m hoping in newer editions, the emphasis has been updated, from what landscapes look like to how plants can help us (food and medicine) and the planet (restoration of habitats and environments).

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