Illustration by Barbara Ortelli Pin

Acorns and Octavia

Imagined futures in Earthseed’s fruiting bodies

COMPRISING MORE THAN FOUR HUNDRED species and two genera, oaks and their fruits abound in most temperate regions of the world, where they feed a great many organisms, from squirrels and deer to turkeys and jays to humans. Despite its utter absence from mainstream American food culture, we have a name for the consumption of acorns: balanophagy. Earth was once home to a number of intact balanocultures, human societies organized around harvesting acorns rather than, for example, grain. Remnants of these societies can be found in modern-day Korea, Italy, and the United States, but this mode of subsistence has largely receded in the wake of various social and ecological developments, including the domestication of goats, the burning of oaks for fuel, and ongoing processes of colonial expansion that have dispossessed Indigenous peoples of land and disrupted their traditional practices.

My foray into the world of balanophagy first brought me to the work of Maine-based botanist Arthur Haines and Wisconsin-based wild food expert Samuel Thayer. Both offer in-depth instruction in acorn processing for the table, and despite their accessible presentation of the information, I initially felt a bit intimidated. In a world in which systems of industrial agriculture have decoupled the act of eating from the act of physically procuring and processing raw ingredients over extended periods, the multistep process required to even just select the right acorns and then render them edible seemed overwhelming.

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In his book Nature’s Garden, Thayer instructs his readers to examine their acorns for signs of ill health and insect damage, then dry, crack, shell, and grind or chop them, and finally leach out the tannins responsible for the acorns’ bitterness in hot or cold water depending on the cook’s specific culinary agenda. Acorns are leached in hot water to produce a porridge-like meal that can be ready the same day while acorns leached in cold water can be used to produce an acorn flour that can take many days to produce. The acorn flour that results, however, can be easily stored and then transformed into delicious pancakes, cookies, and breads. Despite the mixture of awe and trepidation that surfaced as I reviewed Thayer’s encyclopedic insights, following these instructions allowed me to slowly become acquainted with the joy of balanophagy. Soon, I was deriving nourishment from this modest fruit that had been resting inconspicuously in the grass all around me, and the nourishment was not merely physical.

Thayer observes that “the world looks different when you eat acorns,” and he’s right. On the one hand, experiencing the firsthand delights of eating acorns and contemplating the recession of this practice over centuries brings forth all manner of social, historical, political, and ecological questions. But, for me, it has also elicited a decidedly emotional experience that has tethered me more firmly to the place where I live. As a scholar with a strong proclivity toward abstract reflection, it is easy for me to become stuck in loops pertaining to the many social questions that pervade my thoughts and the many devastating contradictions that shape our lives in the modern world. Though this is undoubtedly my nature, eating acorns is among the practices that have helped me to ground myself more fully in my animal body and on the landscape that surrounds me. Eating acorns has effectively enlarged my sense of what is happening around me, who and what warrants my attention, and how various biota—from the ticks to the mice to the white-tailed deer to the oak trees—come together to make life possible in my bioregion. In so doing, I have found refuge from the transient, universalizing detachment of the life of the mind and a reversal of the placelessness that leaves modern people dialed, superficially, into everything while belonging nowhere.

This desire to have a felt sense of place born of nature connection and to physically build oneself out of that place by ingesting its life-forms is a sentiment I often hear expressed among foragers in my bioregion, but I have also encountered people who articulate a different set of motivations for foraging. Though these are not mutually exclusive ideologies, some express concern about the unsustainability of modern industrial society and the need to prepare for an as yet unspecified future calamity that will plunge us back into premodern lifeways, ready or not. Though this insight seems prescient to me, it must be said that many people around the world are already living in a post-collapse state, including much of the global Black community of which I am a part. The crises projected by scholars and pundits have already befallen so many people around the world across lines of race and nation. When we speak of apocalypse and how to survive its present and future demands, it is crucial that we broaden our vision, and I have found the acorn to be a heuristic that offers abundant food for thought.

My journey into the curious world of balanophagy has brought me into contact with a great many guides, but perhaps nowhere is the acorn’s multitudes more deeply storied than in the work of visionary science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler. Released in the 1990s, her acclaimed Earthseed series offers a prophetic illustration of the apocalyptic realities that have largely engulfed our world in the thirty years since the first volume was published. Across two books—Parable  of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998)—the Earthseed series follows Lauren Olamina, a fifteen-year-old girl traversing a postapocalyptic Southern California in the year 2024, a time of planetary warming, widespread hunger, refugee crises, immense corporate greed, and the unraveling of various governing institutions. For many of Butler’s contemporary readers, the events she narrates hit eerily close to home.

Can we learn to notice the acorns strewn amid the grass and recover their nourishment?

Although popular conceptions of apocalypse direct our attention toward an end time that remains suspended in the distance without ever arriving, Butler flips this mythos on its head, turning our attention onto our own lives rather than trafficking in escapism. By showing us characters who struggle to survive in a world of extreme violence and hunger while wealthier people live in protected zones of safety and satiety, Butler invites us to contemplate the ways in which contemporary life is already fundamentally unlivable—quite literally unsurvivable—for so many people, and the possibility that apocalypse is not merely before us but around us. This recalls a notion enunciated by Native American scholar-activist Nick Estes—as well as many others speaking from the margins—that the world has already ended many times before. The destruction of an ecosystem that sustains a lifeway, grounds a cosmology, and elicits an epistemology is, undoubtedly, an apocalyptic event, and the history of the world is unquestionably lined with them. The insight that the violent march of civilization has also created the conditions for rampant hunger, food insecurity, gendered violence, and other devastating realities clarifies the gravity of the losses and what may be required to embark upon the work of repair.

Accompanied by a small band of fellow travelers, Lauren seeks refuge from the unending wave of violence in her midst along with a place to realize her vision of leading an intentional community grounded in her singular spiritual philosophy. As she contends with the pervasiveness of food insecurity in her own community, she attempts a kind of reversal of the processes of dispossession unfolding all around her. Against the wishes of her father, she secretly studies a book that captures Indigenous knowledge about edible plants in California and begins to share this information with others. Throughout the story, the characters eat acorn bread, both as a reflection of the restricted access to industrial foodstuffs that develops in their post-collapse world, and perhaps also as a metaphor for the endurance of life even in postapocalyptic ruins. As the first book draws to a close, this latter theme comes into even greater focus as Lauren forms a land-based community to which she gives the name Acorn. There, she and her companions conduct a funerary rite to honor all of those lost to violence in the preceding year. Intermingling the remains of the deceased with a number of acorns and planting them in the ground, they affirm the ever-present possibility that new life can sprout from all that they have endured.

Alongside the unmistakable earthliness of invoking the acorn as a spiritual metaphor, Lauren also expresses a paradoxical and decidedly otherworldly vision of transformation. In a daring departure from the Christian teachings of her father (a pastor), Lauren crafts a faith that she calls Earthseed. Earthseed’s doctrine claims that the destiny of humanity is to colonize other planets and “take root among the stars” where, Lauren imagines, truly new human beginnings can flourish. The tenets of Earthseed are numerous and complex but are captured in a sacred text that Lauren develops over the course of the series, Earthseed: The Books of the Living. The following verses from the book capture some of its core assertions:

God is Change
And hidden within Change
Is surprise, delight,
Confusion, pain,
Discovery, loss,
Opportunity, and growth.
As always,
God exists
To shape
And to be shaped.

By contrast, Lauren’s brother, Marc, offers a different perspective on God and change. More invested in the work of earthly repair, healing, and reforging a sense of home on Earth, he offers this contrasting spiritual philosophy:

The child in each of us
Knows paradise.
Paradise is home.
Home as it was
Or home as it should have been.

Paradise is one’s own place,
One’s own people,
One’s own world,
Knowing and known,
Perhaps even
Loving and loved.

Yet every child
Is cast from paradise—
Into growth and destruction,
Into solitude and new community,
Into vast, ongoing

In this story, we see Lauren’s desire to engage in what might be described as the ultimate desire for transcendence—to leave Earth behind in a bid to ameliorate suffering. This theme may emerge most strongly when Marc invokes the story of the Tower of Babel. In that biblical story, characters attempt to erect a physical structure to deliver them from the chaos, destruction, and imperfection of the human experience and transport themselves to the heavens. But in their herculean attempt to transcend their human natures, they heap destruction and suffering upon themselves. This theme is also reflected in the destruction of Lauren’s relationship with her daughter, Larkin, whom she forsakes in the single-minded pursuit of her extraterrestrial agenda. Lauren and Larkin’s mutual pain thus seems to demonstrate a widely held philosophical truth: that the flight from suffering is, quite often, its greatest cause.

Lauren’s contested conviction that humans must leave Earth to achieve liberation (and Marc’s counterargument) reflects long-standing debates concerning the origins of injustice and inequality, the degree to which these phenomena can be eradicated in this world or in any other one, and the role that technology has historically played in these matters and may yet play in the future. A great many anthropologists, historians, and theorists have identified the rise of agriculture as a point of no return past which egalitarian lifeways could never be recaptured due to the escalating enclosure of lands, violence, injustice, and ecological devastation upon which agricultural civilization is predicated.

Though Butler does not write explicitly about preagricultural balanocultures, reading her through these parallel conversations reveals hitherto obscured implications of using acorns as central sources of nourishment and as metaphor throughout her series. One way to interpret Butler’s narrative is that she is asking, at least metaphorically: Can pre-agricultural balanocultures—that is, cultures free from the ravages of ecological destruction and the types of social domination that agriculture precipitated—ever be restored? Are worlds beyond the domination and violation of civilization possible, on this planet or others? Can we learn to notice the acorns strewn amid the grass and recover their nourishment, both physical and metaphysical?

Originally envisioned as a several-volume saga, the Earthseed series concluded as a duology when Butler passed away tragically. It is therefore difficult to know how the story might have developed further, but the gestalt of Butler’s storytelling in the existing volumes offers a highly unique and poignant meditation on the perennial tension between immanence and transcendence, between staying where you are to contend with the many dilemmas you have inherited and departing that environment for a different set of challenges and possibilities. In Butler’s story, not long after Lauren and her cotravelers reach their figurative promised land, their community (“Acorn”) is destroyed and its inhabitants enslaved, but the characters’ journeys do not end there. They continue to fight on their own behalf for the future they want amid the world’s imperfections.

The flight from suffering is, quite often, its greatest cause.

In The Ascent of Humanity, philosopher Charles Eisenstein advances a kindred argument situated within the aforementioned debate about the development of civilization. In contrast to various thinkers who place our preagricultural (including balanocultural) origins on a moral pedestal, he asserts that the emergence of agriculture happened everywhere more or less at the same time, and that, fundamentally, this transition cannot possibly be wrong because it reflected an inevitable evolutionary impulse akin to humankind’s discovery of fire. Ultimately, he suggests that we would do well to ally ourselves with the transformative possibilities now available to us in the modern world that agriculture built, including technological possibilities that are poised to, in some sense, express beauty and aliveness.

Similarly, in the late anthropologist David Graeber’s posthumous book The Dawn of Everything, he and coauthor David Wengrow insist that it is both misleading and unhelpful to conceptualize the rise of agricultural civilization in a purely linear manner implying that once agriculture was widely established, any attempts to achieve more equitable social relations would have no chance of success. By contrast, Graeber and Wengrow have argued that despite the specific and lasting challenges that the rise of agricultural civilization has introduced, humans have had to choose freedom or domination at every turn in the course of our existence, and that we are ultimately responsible for shaping the lives we lead.

As Butler might have it in the terminology of the Earthseed series, humans have had abundant opportunities to “shape God” amid the chaos and destruction that surround us. On this view, the work of liberation does not rest on re-instating preagricultural lifeways like balanocultures, but on reappraising human lives as full of more multiplicity and even more fruitful possibilities than monochromatic narratives readily allow. In an explicit rejection of the Christian insistence on a static, divine purpose only realizable in heaven, Lauren writes of a different transcendent destiny for Earthseed in outer space when she pens the phrase: “Consider—we are born not with purpose but with potential.” The tension between Lauren’s dedication to transcendent modes of expansion and Marc’s dedication to more immanent orientations to reconnection, repair, and endurance is never resolved in the series. It is difficult to know whether Butler planned to enter an explicit judgment on this question but, in the absence of concrete answers from her, I turned to the acorns themselves—and to my community.

As part of my role as a trip leader with national not-for-profit Outdoor Afro, I held a live event in Boston last October titled “Acorns and Octavia.” Just as harvesting and eating acorns has helped me to ground my mental ruminations in the felt reality of my body and my place on the landscape, I realized that these philosophical questions contained in Butler’s texts are ultimately more like riddles that, like the literal acorns themselves, are meant to be digested and shared communally. My event was energized by the hypothesis that storying the acorn, reviving traditional ecological knowledge surrounding its consumption, and discussing its many meanings may be a powerful strategy in the effort to reverse processes that have occluded this knowledge, disrupted our connection to place, and undermined our capacity to nourish ourselves physically and otherwise.

Though no more than ten attendees were present for the first run of Acorns and Octavia, the experience was immensely rewarding for me. As I tracked back and forth between explaining tactical acorn-processing strategies and some of the broader conceptual threads outlined here, the group was engaged with the multitudes of the acorn as food, metaphor, and sociohistorical artifact. This progressive loss of knowledge that has accompanied the rise of civilization and the eventual emergence of an industrial food system is the type of transformation that can bring about the end of a world, as Nick Estes observed. But reinstatement of ecological knowledge such as this can also announce the triumphant arrival of a new one that is more rich, more fascinating, and even more malleable than we previously grasped.

In the spirit of Octavia Butler, however, many of the philosophical questions that we raised—and that she also raised for us—did not find simple resolution, or any resolution at all. We can imagine ourselves in various possible futures, in wildly contrasting accounts of the human past, and even on other planets, but irrespective of what was or what may be, we are ultimately on Earth right now among the oaks and acorns. For as long as we’re here, we can learn to see nourishment in unexpected places and shape the conditions of our lives even as we attend to the many worlds continuously dying and being born in these times of tumult.

May we cultivate the capacity to see a world—our world of seemingly endless complexity, beauty, and ugliness—in an acorn as Butler did, and then grind it into our most sacred nourishment.


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Kaitlin Smith is a writer, scholar, public humanist, and naturalist based in Somerville, Massachusetts, where she is a PhD student in history of science at Harvard.