The observable examined

Deer Hollow Farm Visit

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This morning, I accompanied the children, from my daughter’s class, on a field trip to Deer Hollow Farm in Los Altos, CA. I was hoping to just drop the children off and then rush to join the rat race. But I was ordered to stay (by the class teacher) and accompany the children the entire trip. It turned out to be one of the best five hours (it went by really fast) I have spent in a long time. I learned so much about the creativity and survival skills of the Ohlone Indians as well as about the bounties of nature. I am going to share as much as I can remember with you.

The kids were broken up into groups of 12 and I accompanied a group that was hosted by a park ranger called Carla (she was just amazing). The goal for the field trip was to learn three natural sources in three categories: food, tools, medicine. The first thing she taught us was to recognize Poison oak (very common on the preserve.)  There is a neat rhyme (not captured accurately) that goes with it

If the leaves are three

 Let them be.

If the leaves are hairy

They are probably berries!

Poison Oak leaves eventually turn red. Notice the three leaf arrangement

 We next learned that the Ohlone Indians liked to eat Miner’s Lettuce. It is a good source of Vitamin C. In more modern times, the miners who came looking for gold also ate it. See below for a visual.


Miner's lettuce. A good source of vitamin C

The elderberry tree found use in tools, food, and medicine. The young tree branches grow straight and the inside of the branches can be easily hollowed out. These branches were used for making spears and musical instruments.  In fact, the Ohlone Indians manipulated these trees so that the branches would grow vertically and get maximum exposure to the sun. In the picture below, you can see the young branches in the foreground.

Elderberry tree.

 Clara then explained how the Ohlone Indians used various oak trees as a source of food. The acorns were harvested, dried in the sun, ground up to make flour, and eventually turned into pancakes.  From harvesting to pancakes, the whole process is pretty laborious and could have easily kept the women occupied all day. 

The buckeye tree was used for fishing. My recollection is that the buckeye seed when consumed by fish, clogs up their gills …….

The willow tree was used in basket weaving (Clara demonstrated how the branches could be made into a circle and not snap). Willow trees are also a source of aspirin which the Indians used to cure headaches.

Mugworts were used before going on hunts because they have hallucinogens that the Indians believed helped them communicate with the spirits. (my recollection here is a bit vague …)

Mugworts plant

Yerba buena (“good herb”) was also used to treat stomach aches. A tidbit – San Francisco was called Yerba Buena before it got its modern name.

Yerba Buena - Good Herb

The bay tree has leaves with strong odor. The Indians used paste from these leaves to mask human odor during hunts (so that they could get close to the deer).

We learned all of the above facts as we hiked our way to the replica Ohlone village (about 0.5mi) from the rendezvous point. The village itself was another big treat. There were examples of early attempts at building spears that were not optimal and how the tools evolved to more efficient forms. My favorite is an accessory for tool throwing (it has a name but I can’t remember). There is a small protrusion on it that fits in the hollow end of the spear. With this aid, we were told, the hunters could hurl the spear at velocities of upto 90mph! Fantastic!  To tie the stone arrowhead tips to the spear, the Indians used “sinew”, found on the hindside of deer legs.

The children also learned about prehunting rituals (lead by the Shaman). For this, Clara made them sit around a circle inside the “Sweat Lodge”, an enclosure that was the exclusive preserve of males. The Indians kept their hunting weapons here, not in their homes. The rationale being, hunting weapons kill, women give birth so it was bad omen for them to coexist in the same space.

The average Ohlone lived upto 30 years of age. So at age 13 or so, children were considered adults. The Ohlone Indians understood the demerits of inbreeding, so when a boy was ready for marriage, he sought his bride in the neigboring village. The girls had their lineage tattooed on their forehead and shoulders. So the grooms would read the tattooes before selection. The girl’s village was paid as part of the marriage.

The children got to play a game that the Ohlone children also played. The game was essentially rolling a small hula hoop like wheel and the children took turns throwing a spear through it. (for the boys, this was practice for hunting).

In another structure, we learned how the Ohlone women ground up acorn and collected the flour in containers (so you can imagine stone mortar and pestle, brushes for scooping out the flour, sieve for collecting fine flour). The kids tried out pounding the acorn nuts to rhythmic singing from Clara.

Other activities for kids included face painting using Ohlone methods (stone and natural color).

The grand finale for the tour was fire making using the Ohlone tradition. This was hit with the kids.

Fire making demonstration

As I mentioned earlier, this whole activity took about 4 hours. But most kids were completely into it, very inquistive, curious,  thinking, asking questions. For me, it was equally informative. It set me thinking about the human ability/capacity to adapt, invent, make creative use of the meagre resources, respect nature, and more importantly, thoroughly blend into the ecosystem (and being an integral part of it). 

This was in my mind, to paraphrase Mark Twain, a prime example of what separates schooling from true education!

I strongly urge you to take the time and visit this wonderful preserve.


Written by asterix98

April 23, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Posted in NAture, Ohlone Indians

One Response

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  1. The tool for throwing spears is known as an atlatl (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlatl). The Ancestral Puebloans in the Four Corners region used it. They eventually upgraded to the bow and arrow.


    September 16, 2011 at 4:53 am

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