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The Tanoak Tree: Book Explores Pacific Coast History Through an Acorn's Eyes

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While there is a need for good science–based environmental books, the detailed data in some texts is enough to make the everyday reader’s head spin. Not so with Frederica Bowcutt’s first book offering, The Tanoak Tree: An Environmental History of a Pacific Coast Hardwood (University of Washington Press, 2015).

It’s a historical narration told from the perspective of the beleaguered Pacific Coast hardwood tanoak tree (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) about a place and its peoples: their cultures, intentions, and actions. It was once the most valued of all the acorn-bearing trees in western California and southwestern Oregon, and its acorns sustained the region’s original inhabitants year-round, forming the basis of their social, cultural and economic lifeways for millennia. Salmon was the only other food that these Indigenous Peoples consumed in larger quantities.

These Native peoples honored their landscape and let its resources shape their lives, in distinct contrast to the mind-set of those who came later to master and capitalize on their surroundings. The first changes came with the Spanish occupation of what is now California, followed by the massive influx of settlers to the American West, who quickly appreciated the monetary value of the tannins in tanoak bark. Overharvesting led to a thriving leather-tanning industry lasting into the 1920s, when the market all but collapsed due to the tree’s overexploitation.

The popularity of redwoods and Douglas firs further diminished the tanoak’s habitat. Perhaps worst of all is a plant disease called phytophthora ramorum that is causing massive tanoak die offs. Yet the tanoak continues to play a vital role in the food systems of the Karuk, Yurok, Klamath, Hoopa and other tribal nations, who now are carrying out projects to revitalize their traditional foods and cultures, including the tanoak acorn.

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Author and botanist Frederica Bowcutt spent nearly 20 years studying the patterns of tanoak use and abuse, and in that time became privy to the indigenous traditional knowledge and forest practices that once kept the tanoak forests pristine. Bowcutt believes that traditional land practices can support conservation efforts for the beleaguered tanoak, and she encourages further investigation.

The book is an honorable treatment of Indigenous Peoples and accurately portrays their health struggles due to the loss of their ancestral diet, as well as their resilience in recreating their food systems. People with an interest in Native culture and lifeways, history, biodiversity, the environment or just fascinating reading will enjoy this book.

The Tanoak Tree: An Environmental History of a Pacific Coast Hardwood is published by a nonprofit for educational purposes, with a portion of the royalties going to Native Americans Fostering Tanoak Wellness.