My Opinion of the Pinyon

“Step Away From the Door”. The voice rings out authoritatively. It is the voice of the Armed Officer, a voice at a drug bust, as if a phalanx of SWAT team members are about to spring through the door following a battering ram, guns drawn. I retreat a bit back into the darkness and the door swings open. A butch and pressed young officer is framed in the light, immaculate, each hair in place, a white ascot at his neck. His gun hand swings up from his hip. Folded between the first two fingers is a copy of the Grand Canyon Visitor’s Guide (South Rim version)

I’m not looking for the visitor’s guide. I’m leaving Grand Canyon and it’s around 10 o’clock at night. All the booths at the entrance of the park are closed, the blinds drawn. The lights are still on, though, so I knocked on the door to ask my question. That’s when Johnny Law played jack-in-the-box, popping out of the booth. (What was he doing in there anyway? Was he alone?) What I want to know is whether it’s hunting season in the Kaibab National Forest. “It is”, says the Immaculate Enforcer. “Bow or rifle?”, I ask. I’m concerned, because I want to spend tomorrow gathering pinyon nuts, and I don’t want to be shot while I forage under a tree. “Bow, elk”, he responds. That’s okay, I figure bow hunters have to get a good look at their targets, and won’t shoot until they’re close. I’m pretty safe from bow hunters.

I’ve been fascinated by foraging for a long time. I’ve gathered crabapples in Cambridge, plums in California, clams, mussels and oysters on Long Island. My obsession with wild foods followed me on this trip. The faithful reader will remember me slurping on sea urchins and oysters back in British Columbia. I’ve also snacked on elk thistle, salmonberries, gooseberries, thimbleberries, huckleberries, manzanita berries, prickly pears, butter clams, and now pinyon nuts. There seems to me something profoundly satisfying about eating food that the earth offers up free for the taking.

On Cortes Island, at Hollyock, where I first studied t’ai chi, we practiced on the soft sand that the ebb tide had exposed. One of the students, Alexander, dug his feet into the sand, unearthing thin shelled butter clams. He picked them up, cracking them with his teeth, prying apart the shell to eat the clam. He looked like a great happy slow moving martial arts otter. Inspired, I dug up some myself and ate them later with tabasco.

Foraging is not without its risks. When I picked prickly pear in Zion National Park, I tried to remove all the little spines from the fruit as I removed its skin. But my patience warred with my desire for its cool purple flesh, and lost. I ended up with several small spines in the corner of my mouth, and one stuck right up in the roof of my mouth. I felt like I was in a nature film – “The foolish raccoon has learned his lesson. He’ll never try eating those prickly pears again.” Close up of Tom trying to pull a prickly pear spine out of his mouth. Of course, unlike the raccoon, I haven’t learned my lesson. I would try to eat prickly pears again – they taste good. I just have to figure out the right technique to clean them.

Back on Read Island, a small Island off the coast of British Columbia, where the Kellers lived in their lodge, I was setting out on a hike. I asked Ralph Keller which of the berries that I might find along the way were edible. “This is a very benevolent environment,” he told me. “Anything that tastes good, you can eat.” What an incredible place! It’s the sort of environment in harmony with a one year old’s view of the world – experience the world by trying to consume it. Meditating on that later, I wrote a long letter about it, which you should all probably be grateful that I edited out of existence.

But like the ghost of an ill-digested meal, it has come back to haunt us all, so here’s the gist of it: When we first enter the world, we assume that we can eat anything that we encounter. But we’re guided by our parents, who instruct us on what we should and should not eat. Spit that out, it’s bad for you, eat this, it’s good for you. As we grow older, we internalize their voices, and form an ego that helps protect us as we make our way through the world. The ego is prejudgment – it allows us to avoid pitfalls, because it already knows how things are. But that protective prejudgment can prevent us from experiencing the singularity of each moment. . The ego that protects us also ends up insulating us. The protective shell becomes constricting, deadening. Perhaps like a lobster, or a crab we must crack that shell, shed it, and stand vulnerable before the world in order to grow to our full size. (A naturalist’s aside – did you know that the female blue crab can only mate in the brief interval when she has shed her shell and before the new one has hardened? When you’re eating softshell crab, you may be in the act of consuming a frustrated virgin.)

It’s clear to me that part of my journey has been about trying to, break through the barriers of my own shell and get in more direct contact with my experience of the world. And part of that process is learning to trust that there is more benevolence and abundance in the universe than the fearfully protective ego expects.

Which leads us back to the unexpected abundance of the pinyon. I’d been on the lookout for pinyons ever since I arrived in the Southwest. I knew they grew in the area, but I didn’t know what they looked like. My hikes around the canyonlands became in part exploration of the different kinds of pine trees and their cones. Mostly, I found cones that the squirrels had already gotten to, and the few tiny nuts I found seemed like an awful lot of work for very little meat. Imagine me wandering by the side of a multicolored canyon, rock spires stretching out into the distance. I’m not looking at the canyon. I’m looking at a half eaten pine cone.

It was when I got to the Kaibab plateau that I finally came across a pinyon pine nut. The cone of the pine had flared wide open, and there sitting in the open cone was a seed about the size of a pistachio nut. I pulled it out of the cone, and cracked it between my teeth. The flesh was yellowish white, the color of teeth, and the flavor very much like that of italian pignoli. I pulled seeds out of the cones, my fingers growing sticky with the pine pitch. I got pine pitch on my lips, my clothes, the steering wheel of the car. The flavor of the pitch got mixed in with that of the pine nuts. Turpentine pesto. Later, as I left the North Kaibab National Forest, I stopped in the visitor center. There I saw a picture of an Indian woman gathering pinyon nuts under a pinyon pine. Under the tree, not in the cones! What a concept!

I stopped by the roadside, and sure enough, there were the nuts lying under trees, brown as coffee beans. I decided to spend a morning gathering by the south rim of the canyon. (That’s why I stopped in to talk to Johnny Law in the entrance booth.) I camped in the National Forest that night, and in the morning, I drove up to the National Forest Ranger station to talk about the good places to gather pinyon nuts. The ranger at the desk was very thin until she stood up, when she revealed a posterior that was clearly a two-chair model. She was quite helpful, though. She told me that it wasn’t bow hunting season for elk any more, rather it was the opening of the four day junior rifle hunting season. Kids under 18 with rifles hunting for elk. And me, a 185 pound mammal rooting around under the trees. Perhaps the National Forest wasn’t the best placed to be foraging. I drove back up to the National Park to ask if I could gather there.

The rangers at the entrance booths were all Indian women. When I asked about gathering pinyon nuts, they became quite vague. They turned their round, smooth faces to me, blasé. No, they weren’t sure if I could gather. Maybe only Indians could gather. Maybe I would get a citation if I did. I drove back to the National Forest ranger station, where my palefaced Demeter was unhappy with that answer. She called the National Park and talked with the head ranger. Yes, it was okay for me to gather, as long as it was for non-commercial purposes, and I only took a gallon bag worth. By the way, she said, I had come at a very propitious time. Pinyon pines seemed to produce in an eight year cycle, and I had come at just the right season in a very good year.

So I drove back into the National Park, passing through a different booth this time, avoiding my unhelpful native companions. I parked by the side of the road, and walked a little way into the woods, looking for pines with a lot of nuts scattered underneath. The sun grew warmer as I squatted, scooping up the nuts and tossing them in my bag. The warm dry pine needles exhaled their perfume, and occasionally birds chattered at me, reminding me to leave a few nuts on the ground for them, too.

I could see how gathering pinyon nuts might traditionally be woman’s work. It requires nimble fingers and patience, both of which women tend to have in greater abundance than do ham-handed men. It’s also great work to do while chatting. But most of all, I think that women are better at accepting the idea of abundance, that the earth may at times freely offer its fruits for our nourishment. Men too often seem compelled to go out and pursue abundance, not recognizing that they are standing in its midst.

After about three hours, I had filled my bag, and I drove out of the park. Since then, I’ve stopped to gather pinyon nuts several more times. I always find gathering the nuts satisfying. I’m a three-year-old at a really easy Easter egg hunt. I like to snack on the pinyon nuts as I drive, cracking them between my teeth, extracting the meat and flicking the shells out of the car window.

Ask me for some when you see me. I’ll be happy to share – they aren’t really mine anyway. I just found them lying there in the pine needles, warmed by the sun. Here, try some. They’re delicious.


Fun With Iron Karl

Iron Karl, the Fascist Tour Director, spread the map out before him and checked off all the stops that it would simply not do to miss. Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Sedona. Iron Karl knows just how things are supposed to run, and will accept no less. It is Iron Karl that seizes control of your Dad on a family vacation and will not let him stop the car so that any of the kids can pee. Iron Karl wants the journey to run on time.

Unfortunately for me, Iron Karl sat on my shoulder for a week or so on this leg of my trip. I drove from Las Vegas around the north shore of Lake Mead, briefly through Arizona and up into the painted rock country of Utah. The change of scenery from Arizona and Nevada to Utah is astounding. All of a sudden green hills rear up, their breast torn away to reveal red and white striations of rock. Although twilight was coming on, Iron Karl grimly kept the van pointed at Zion. But my back was getting sore from a long day of driving, and I persuaded him that we should stop at a state park campground.

In Zion, it was Iron Karl that goaded me up the 8 mile round trip to Observation Point, even though my back was feeling sore. Usually, Professor Monkey is my companion on hikes. He chatters about the plants, flowers, and birds. He wants to know their names. He wonders about future hikes and past hikes. He brings along disembodied friends, lovers, family and induces me to hold long dialogs with them as I walk. But the good Professor is easy enough to shut up – I can usually simply try to focus on exactly what I am seeing and experiencing, and the Monkey will be quiet and look, too, if only for a moment.

Not so Iron Karl. Once Karl knew that my back was not feeling right, it became a contest of wills. “Look,” said Iron Karl “You’ve already come this far. Surely you can go a little farther. It wouldn’t do to come all the way to Zion and miss the view from Observation Point.” So on he drove me, through canyons of twisted and tortured red sandstone, over paths chipped into the sheer sides of white cliffs, and the walk became less and less about the dizzying views down the Canyon, and more about if and when I should turn back. I made it all the way to the top, and I took a lovely picture that does not reveal my discomfort. I am sure that Iron Karl was pleased by the picture. He collects momentos the way a boy scout collects merit badges. For him, every trip comes with a checklist. It matters most that all the items are checked off in sequence and on time.

After I returned from my hike, back tight and painful, I stopped by the visitor center. There I saw a van with some familiar looking bumper stickers. Then I realized that the van was familiar, too. It belonged to Adam, a new friend from Burning Man (for you cross-referencers, he’s the one that said “Look, we’re in a Dali painting” in the letter “Lightly Singed“) I left a note on his windshield, and returned to my campsite where I rested in the back of the van, reading, and then soaked in the icy waters of the Virgin River. In the cool of the evening, Adam drove up, still clad in his outfit for mountain biking. For a minute, I had to hate him for his physical well-being. But he was kind, and drove me over to the Pah Tempe hotsprings for a soak, and even let me ride lying down on the way back. I spent the next day at Pah Tempe, soaking in the sulpherous waters, doing a little t’ai chi, and my back recovered quickly.

After his day off at Pah Tempe, Iron Karl drove the two of us from Zion to Bryce Canyon, which is about as fanciful a place as you can imagine. The Indian name for it was something like “Valley where the red rocks stand like men”, which is pretty accurate. The canyon is actually the side of a plateau scoured by runoff. (As I overheard one tourist say “Why it’s nothing but a big gully. You give the one behind our house a couple of million years and it will look just like this.”). The soft red and white rock is eroded down into ranks of spires called hoodoos. They look like sculptures made by dripping wet sand down out of a closed fist. It’s quite interesting to wander around in, but I found it almost too fussy. It’s nature at its most baroque.

Once again, Iron Karl took the wheel and headed us to the Grand Canyon, but here I lost him. Neither of us were expecting the Kaibab Plateau. It rises up from the endless plain of sagebrush, “a forested island in a sea of desert” (so says the visitor information center) first clad in Pinyon pine, and then Ponderosa, and golden aspen. We had hit the autumn again. The pines opened up to long green alpine meadows going brown and dry now, their sides bordered with white barked aspen, the trunks rising up thin and straight to a corona of yellow. Iron Karl was struck dumb with the beauty of the place.

Adam and I spent a few days on the North Rim, hiking around. On one hike, Iron Karl and Professor Monkey got into an unholy gleeful chorus. Iron Karl was sure that there was a “best” hike to take in order to most fully enjoy the hour leading up to sunset. Professor Monkey agreed, but started exploring the options, hinting that perhaps the hike that we were on was not the optimal one. This enraged Iron Karl. It simply will not do to be at the Grand Canyon and take a sub-optimal hike! I let Adam in on my dilemma. He was sanguine about the whole thing “I’m sure that whatever hike we take, we won’t be disappointed”. He was right, of course. As we watched, the light of the setting sun fell on Mount Hayden, a single beige sandstone finger pointing heavenwards, and that spire glowed gold to orange to red until the light failed, and the horizon was rimmed with lavender and gray.

The next day, I said goodbye to Adam, who said as he parted “Remember, there’s no right way and no wrong way”. A fitting epitaph for Iron Karl. Then I let Karl go, and went to the south rim, just because I wanted to, not because it was on the schedule. I managed to get on a mule ride the next day. The mule rides are booked months in advance, but you can put your name on a waiting list, which I did. Then I had to show up at 6:15 AM to see if I got on the ride, which just shows you how much I wanted to ride. I did not make the cut – I was the next person on the list. I hung around, looking so pitiful that the guy at the desk called up and got me a place.

When I got to the corral, the Chorus of Cautionary Grandmothers put in an appearance. They’re usually lurking in the background, fretting about the engine overheating, muttering darkly about foolish behavior that will lead to disaster. They wanted to know how I thought I’d be able to ride, me a poor cripple with a bad back. They would prefer it if I simply stood at the top of the canyon and looked in. From behind the railing. Better yet, look at it all from the cool comfortable depths of the IMax theater, just down the road. To appease them, I ate enough ibuprofen to relax an elephant, and strapped on a back support, and clambered aboard my mule “Big G”.

In reality, riding is not hard on my back, but the Chorus of Cautionary Grandmothers needed to keep on checking in for the first hour or two. But their voices faded as I sunk into the experience of riding in that amazing place. I enjoyed the feeling of being on the mule, matching my movement to his swaying, bumpy gait. Riding, you don’t have to look at your feet – that’s the mule’s job, so I looked out over the canyon drinking in the view. We descended through the white sandstone into the red shale and the vermillion something-or-other. We came out on a broad green plateau of sage and rode out to the very edge where we could look down into the dark brown schist of the gorge, the narrow sides rising up from the brown and roiled waters of the Colorado. Across from us, the canyons of the North Rim, behind us the green valley that we had descended, enfolded by sheer red cliffs surmounted with a brow of white.

It was time for lunch with my mule riding companions. I was grateful that none of them were in my head, for the time being.