Ancient Super Seed Secret

In The Three Sages, I wrote about three local salvias –black, white and purple - no mention of chia, Salvia columbariae (the most important sage to the Chumash) the seeds of which are now consumed daily in our breakfast cereal, bread and health drinks. Dr Oz (among others) proclaims it to be an Ancient Super Seed Secret. It was a staple in the diet of many indigenous peoples. Referencing C.L. Bard’s A Contribution to the History of Medicine in Southern California, Southern California Practioner, August 1894, Jan Timbrook notes,

“Perhaps the most widely used phrase in California Ethnobotany is Bard’s assertion that one tablespoon of chia seeds was sufficient to sustain for 24 hours an Indian on a forced march".

More than a century later, the hyperbole continues.

My goal in The Three Sages was partly to raise awareness of this species that thrives on the fringes of the chaparral and to encourage a minimal sage literacy. How then could I ignore columbariae? The simple fact is that until a few days ago I had experienced but a single chia sighting, on Shelf Road, some four years ago (In Search of a Shaman’s Lair). All that changed on a recent hike up Horn Canyon.

Was it a Thacher lacrosse field that lay to my left on the way up to the trail head? Young athletes lounged on the field, their sophisticated ball catchers sprawled around them, mostly unaware that this game had derived from a geographically alien culture (East-coast woodland Indians) and were they to participate in simulacrum of a local indigenous sport then on-line poker would be infinitely more appropriate (the Chumash were gambling-mad). Unless, that is, they were interested in achieving an altered state of consciousness, in which case ultra-marathoning might appeal to these louche wannabe Spartans. Fueled by the ancient super seed, local Indians performed prodigious acts of mind-altering distance-running.

Meanwhile, a young equestrian crossed my path and trotted up a nearby rise. The Spanish, agents of the Indian genocide, had, of course, re-introduced the horse to California in the late eighteenth century after the original Asian immigrants had hunted Equus ferus ferus to extinction at the end of the Ice Age some ten thousand years before.

Best not, perhaps, to trouble these young minds with the difficult paradoxes of pre-history. I passed by, intent on broaching the wildlands that beckoned beyond.

Yellow-gold petals from bush poppies were sprinkled along the trail. The rocky path was shaded by cottonwoods, bays and oaks as it followed Thacher Creek. Horticulturally, it was a quiet beginning: the usual suspects of lupin, mimulus, vetch, blue dicks, eriodictylon, occasionally woolly painbrush and, of course, the bush poppy grew along the clearing in the dominant chamise chaparral.

As I climbed beyond The Pines camp site at 3250 feet, the vegetation grew more interesting – dodder, wooly blue curls, manzanita, bush oaks and then………..chia! It grew, demurely, on either side of the trail amongst the companionable blue blossoms of blue dicks, black sage, and yerba santa: a few florets still clung to the seed heads which, in a week or two, would be ready for harvesting.

I imagined that long ago forbears of these annual plants had been seeded from spillage from burden baskets carried by Chumash women (secured with a tumpline - a broad strap supported by the woman’s brow) as they returned from the legendary chia fields at the foot of the Toptopa range. As M. Kat Anderson explains in Tending the Wild, 2005, Chumash grassland burning practices encouraged the growth of selected seed crops. The cessation of this practice, combined with the inroads made by introduced plant species has caused a drastic decline in the abundance of chia (Timbrook). It is now grown commercially from Kentucky to Argentina, but here in the erstwhile happy gathering grounds of the Chumash, it is increasingly rare - easier to find on supermarket shelves than in the wild.

Thus the commodification of the wildland continues at a cost to the authentic experience. Goji berries promise to provide the longevity of Himalayan Tibetans while chia seeds guarantee the endurance of the Tumarahara and Chumash trail runners (In Search of a Shaman's Lair). Context is everything. I can assure you that your endurance will improve if you regularly climb out of the valley to about 5,000 feet and harvest your breakfast cereal and then carry it back in a Juncus rush burden basket, mix some with a little spring water and knock it back. Similarly, the sparse diet of the traditional Tibetan, with or without goji berries would almost certainly prolong the lives of the WEIRD (Jared Diamond’s acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). Dr. Oz’s medicine show promotes Chia pudding, Click here for the complete recipe, but absent the primitive life-style of the indigenous people your health benefits may vary.

Authenticity in Landscape, Life and (Lacrosse?) is hard won. Edward Abbey, whom I have only recently begun to read, represents someone who, although fundamentally WEIRD (but never Rich and as an Anarchist, questionably Democratic),  possessed an inviolable authenticity. He writes, in Desert Solitaire, 1968, that his aim, as he begins a summer as a park ranger in Moab is to,

“confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock that sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities.”

Farley Mowatt, the Canadian writer whose death at 92 was announced today had a similar ethos: he adopted the diet of the Artic wolves he was studying (eating wood rats and other rodents) in order to understand their true nature. He later fictionalized his researches as Never Cry Wolf, 1963. Peter Matthiessen, who died earlier this year, never wavered from his fierce advocacy of the wildlands and its creatures. His first book, Wildlife in America, 1959, was published three years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and initiated a half century of researching and writing about endangered species. In The Birds of Heaven, Travels with Cranes, 2001, he writes,

“In this brilliant winter light, against black tree trunks and white snow, the red-crowned crane moves and turns like the quick heart of life, as dark evergreens, in their impenetrable stillness, breathe the imminence of the great mystery looming behind.”

Such lyricism can be the reward for an authentic immersion into the natural world. All I’m saying is a life in Ojai demands an engagement of its wildlands. A friend who lives on a lane off of Thacher Road mentioned that in her ten years of living in Ojai, she had never seen a deer. I suppose it would be possible, immured in Manhattan, to never see a yellow cab. But can either life be considered authentic to the place where it is lived?