Food makes the world go around, according to this absorbing account of how the search for food has shaped human nature. It is more important than love or sex for the simple reason that food is harder to find than a mate. Think of it this way, says Allport, who draws on the research of anthropologists and biologists in presenting her fascinating and provocative theories: Mates are often willing accomplices in the act of mating; food is never a willing accomplice in the act of eating.
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The Primal Feast
Food, Sex, Foraging and Love
By Susan Allport Writers Club Press
Copyright © 2003 Susan Allport
All right reserved.
AN EARLY-MORNING AROUSAL
It is 5:45 in the morning, and I have been awakened, as I have the past two mornings, by the sounds of a squirrel in the gutter near my window. It is searching for dogwood berries, I think, because a very old dogwood hangs over the house and because I have seen squirrels during the day rummaging through this and other gutters and eating those bright-red, lozenge-shaped fruits. Their mouths are stained red. Their teeth move as rapidly as the needle on a sewing machine.
Isn't it too early for you? I want to ask this squirrel. No light at all is coming through the window at 5:45 on this day in mid-November. But I know the early squirrel gets the dogwood berry. That squirrels spend most of their time eating and searching for food is strange only to people who have their meals down to a regular three a day.
Anyway, I'm awake now, and it's still early enough to get up and do something I've been promising myself I'd do for several months. I dress quickly, putting on wool socks, long underwear, and the warm fleece pants that I wear ice skating. Then I head outside and down into the woods behind my house. The crescent moon is bright in the sky. The leafless treesstand bold and black against the first pale, pearly light.
I walk slowly so that I won't trip over any rocks or branches, but in fact I know this way well. It is the same path I take to the spring where I pick watercress or to the compost pile where my husband and I bring our wagonloads of clippings and prunings. Neither of those places is my destination, though, and I pass them both and begin to follow a stone wall that marks our property line down to the point where it intersects with another wall. There I see the tree that I intend to climb, a tulip tree about seventy-five feet high. It is split at its base into three tall straight trunks, and on one of the trunks, about a third of the way up, is a deer blind, a small metal seat placed there by a local carpenter who has our permission to hunt in these woods.
The carpenter also gave me permission to climb up to his isolated perch, though if he had any idea how much I like to have both feet on the ground and how little I like being up in something that sways when the wind blows, as this tree does, he might have done me the favor of saying no. I have climbed the tree twice now, during the day, and I know that the rungs screwed into the trunk are positioned so that the climb up is fairly easy. But still, one has, at the top, to hoist oneself up and over the wire supports of the blind.
And one has, of course, to come down. I would be enjoying myself a lot more if I didn't know that. The first time I tried it, I started off with my hands and feet in the wrong position and wound up hanging from one of the trunks until I mustered the nerve and the strength to pull myself back up to the top and start over. My heart was still pounding when I got home, and my muscles were sore for days.
This morning it is so dark that I can barely make out the rungs. When I find them, they are strikingly cold as only metal can be. I climb quickly and am soon settled on the grid seat, with my gloves on and my binoculars ready, waiting. I check the time. It is a few minutes after six, and I watch as the marsh on my left, and then the apple trees surrounding the spring where the watercress grows, come into focus. What changes this land has seen, I think from this high vantage point. What changes this land will continue to see. The stone walls, rock-lined spring, and apple trees remind me that just one hundred years ago these woods were farmland. The bare understory of the woods, the fact that white-tailed deer have eaten all the young saplings with which a forest regenerates itself, makes me wonder what these woods will look like in another hundred years. "No one knows," a Cornell wildlife specialist who has been studying the question once told me, "because we can't make any predictions from the past." He tells his students, though, that whatever the species composition is in the forests that their children and their grandchildren will walk through, it will be determined primarily by deer.
I look down at the forest floor, and the only low-growing plants I can see are white snakeroot with its flower heads, now fuzzy and brown, and winged euonymous, its small pale pink leaves hanging from its branches like the crystal drops on a chandelier. I don't know why the deer pass up euonymous, or corkbush as it is also called, but I do know that white snakeroot contains the powerful and deadly poison tremetol, a compound similar to rotenone, the active ingredient in many pesticides. Deer, like other herbivores, have a great ability to detoxify compounds that would fell other animals, but even they are no match for tremetol.
So, I think, we may not know what the forest will look like in one hundred years, but we do probably know what it will taste like. Whatever trees and plants are allowed to survive and reproduce will have leaves and bark deadly enough to put off deer. A density of just eighteen to twenty deer per square mile starts to significantly change the forest understory. In these parts of New York, as in much of the east coast, deer populations are five to ten times that. It would be wonderful to think of that much wildlife just forty miles from New York City were it not for the long-term effects on the land and on all the other animals that live in these woods and are dependent on a healthy mix of plants for shelter, nesting materials, and food.
I fully expected to see some of these deer this morning, some of the many scores of deer that I pass every day on my walks or while driving in my car. In fact, I came out this early just to get an appreciation of what a population density of some one hundred deer per square mile looks like during the morning hours, the deer rush hours. I expected to be able to muse on the fact that only here in the United States, only now in the late twentieth century, are food supplies so abundant and available that we don't have to bother with these convenient packets of protein and fat. And to point out that only because we are so removed from food production can we afford to let this one animal eliminate all the edible plants in our area, all the plants that we would need to survive if our supermarkets suddenly closed.
But my morning didn't turn out the way I thought it would. I didn't see any deer. I think I heard one warning snort of the kind that a deer makes to warn other deer that something is amiss, but I didn't actually see a single white tail, a single flashy new set of antlers. Perhaps it was the bright blue socks that I had grabbed in the dark or my sneakers, which had never looked so white as they did dangling down from that seat. Or perhaps it was that the deer had already eaten everything there was to eat in this part of the woods and were on my lawn, sampling the rose of Sharon that I planted last summer and had forgotten to fence.
I don't know. But what I did come to appreciate that morning, as I sat there on my high seat, trying to tuck my feet underneath me so that my shoes and socks would not be so conspicuous, was just how difficult it would be to actually bring dinner home this way. I understand very well the skills that it takes to grow food or prepare food, but somehow I never really appreciated the skills that it takes to hunt food. I don't know what I was thinking: that hunters just set themselves up in trees, then pick off their quarry as the deer file by. But as I sat there growing a little hungry, cold, and tired of waiting, thinking of how much I'd rather be poking around in the spring for watercress, I was getting a new perspective on the traditionally male half of the human food-getting equation.
I found myself remembering some of the more remarkable hunting techniques I had heard about in the past year or so: hunters waiting for days at a spring or a fruiting tree; hunters in Kenya and Tanzania draping themselves in the red blankets of Masai herdsmen so they can move in close to zebra and gazelles without those animals suspecting their true intentions; Inuit hunters outwitting seals at their breathing holes with a method that resembles nothing so much as a cleverly orchestrated shell game. In it, two Inuit walk toward a breathing hole together and with carefully synchronized steps. Then, as they reach the hole, one stops and the other keeps on walking. The seal comes to think, naturally and mistakenly, that it is safe to poke its nose up for air.
Nature doesn't give up its truths easily, a scientist once told me after spending five thousand hours in the field collecting data on the habits of a particular monkey. Or its foods, I thought, as I finally gave up waiting and began climbing down the tree.
Or its foods.
Excerpted from The Primal Feast by Susan Allport Copyright © 2003 by Susan Allport. Excerpted by permission.
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