Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #15


elderberry-coverAbout Elderberry

elder flowerThere are several species of Elderberry in the U.S., with the most common in the West being the Blue Elderberry; a deciduous shrub that can grow up to 30 feet high. Its leaves, 4 inches long and 2 inches wide, are arranged in opposite pairs with 5-9 serrated leaflets. In late spring and summer, the shrub bears tiny white elderflower clusters that can form into a group as large as 12 inches in diameter.
Flowers are pollinated by insects, and as the season progresses, the flowers fruit into drooping clusters of hundreds of dark purple to black berries.

Cluster of Elderberries
Cluster of Elderberries

Then, in order to preserve moisture and nutrients, Elderberry will lose their leaves in late summer and turn green again with early winter rains.

Having said all of the above, I realized that the Elderberry I have been following the past three weeks is just now starting to flower … at a time when it is supposed to be bearing fruit! This realization caused me to have a genuine “crisis of confidence” and I began to think I was following another species and had definitely “blown it”. After several hours of scrutinizing pictures of the leaves on “my Elderberry,” I was positive that “my Elderberry” was indeed an Elderberry. That left another question, “What was going on with my Elderberry?” After consulting two experts on this issue, I learned that because of our variable and unpredictable California climate, Elderberries sometimes flower and fruit more than once a year. I guess this means that mine will be bearing fruit around Halloween!

Elderberry Provides Food

The berries of the Elderberry are edible, but only when cooked! Other parts of the plant, leaves, stems, roots, seeds and unripe fruits, are toxic … more on this later.

In the Past – The elderberry was extremely important to many native people for its numerous and varied uses, including food. Native inland groups harvested the berries in very large quantities throughout the summer and then carefully dried and preserved them for use in the winter. The berries were cooked into a rich sauce that needed no sweetening. Frequently, native families subsisted on Elderberry exclusively during long periods of the winter.

Although elderberry was not important as a food source for the Chumash, it was key to acquiring and preparing much of the protein in their diets. Why was that? Because elderberry wood is extremely hard, it is an excellent source of wood for tools. In particular, its branches were of prime importance in the making of bows and arrows for hunting. Chumash straight bows, called “self bows” were about 4 feet long and made of a single piece of elderberry wood. Unlike composite bows made of wood and sinew, these self bows could be taken on sea voyages, and did not become useless when they got wet. Because of this hunters could cross the Channel in their Tomols and were able to hunt on the Channel Islands, as well on the mainland.

Stems have pith
Stems have pith
Bow, Arrows and quiver
Bow, Arrows and quiver

Shoots and branches of elderberries are filled with a soft tissue called pith, tissue that can be easily removed to leave a hollow tube. These tubes are well suited to serve as arrow shafts, that handily complete the bow/arrow pair for hunting. Other uses for the hard wood of Elderberry included squirt guns, blow guns, combs, spindles and pegs.*

What About Cooking?  When it was time to cook, elderberry branches were made into “fire sticks”. Remember the old boy scout trick for starting fires … twirl a pointed hardwood stick until you get sparks and ignite some soft material (like dried pith)?  Voila … fire!  And yet another hollow stem could be used as bellows to blow air into the center of the fire.
After dinner … or any other time as well, might be time for a “smoke” … although much of the smoking was done before dinner. Hollow tubes made great pipes. And the tobacco? It was carried in those hollow tubes that had been converted into containers by plugging up one or two ends.
Today – Traditional methods of enjoying Elderberry include jams, jellies, syrups and pies, all of which are made by cooking down the fruit and straining out the seeds. (The elderberry jelly that I ordered from New Jersey just arrived and while its principal ingredient is sugar, it has a lovely, subtle flavor that I really liked.) And if you need a beverage for a really big celebration, you can serve elderberry wine or liqueur made from fermented berries.

elderberry birdThe importance of Elderberry for wildlife in various areas has been widely recognized. Numerous species of mammals and birds are known to consume its fruit or foliage, and apparently, they don’t have to cook the fruit first. For example, Elderberry is an important food source for native songbirds including western bluebird, ash-throated flycatcher, white-crowned sparrow and California thrasher.

Birds also utilize larger elderberry shrubs for nesting sites. And happily, we have an example, right here on our very own More Mesa. Many of you know the significance of our signature bird, the White-tailed Kite because of its designation as a “California Bird of Special Concern”. In good rain years (lots of food) we have up to three nesting pairs on More Mesa. However, even in poor rain years we consistently have at least one nest at the most important, and historic, eastern nest site. Where is that nest … in a patch of Elderberries! Learn more about raising kite babies on the “Birds” section of our website.

Baby Kites on More Mesa
Baby Kites on More Mesa

Elderberry Creates Music, Dancing and Ceremony

For the Chumash, musical instruments were also one of the major uses for elderberry wood. The hollow stems were fashioned into flutes and whistles. Holes to create the various notes were drilled with hot sticks. The elderberry flute, played for enjoyment and courtship, has 2 voices, and sounds different from each end. Unlike most flutes, which are played at the side of the mouth or straight down, this is played at a diagonal. And instead of a blow, it will just take the tiniest puffs, puffs that are very subtle.

Bullroarer Ojai Museum
Ojai Museum

The Chumash also used Elderberry to make a split stick rattle that could be played by striking it on the hand or body, bringing it to a sudden stop or rapidly shaking it to produce clapping sounds. A third instrument, a bullroarer, was a piece of flat elderberry with a fiber string attached to one end … played by whirling it overhead to create a scary, whirring sound.*

The Elderberry is a Pharmacy

Berries of the Elderberry are one of the richest sources of vitamin C and also boast a high content of vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus and iron. Along with the flowers, they are packed with antioxidants and vitamins that may boost your immune system. Through the ages it has been extremely useful to people all over the world and to this day, is still widely considered one of the world’s most healing plants in alternative medicine.

In the Past: The written history of Elderberry dates as far back as 400 BC and Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine”. He called the Elder Tree his

Sacred Irish Tree
Sacred Irish Tree

“medicine chest.” In the middle ages, Elderberry was considered a Holy Tree capable of restoring and maintaining good health, and as an aid to longevity. Native People in California used different preparations of flowers and leaves for various reasons; to treat colds, sore throats, fever, and also to induce sweating and relieve aches and inflammation. Poultices made from the flowers were used to treat wounds, improve the complexion, tone and soften the skin, and lighten freckles or spots.
It is well documented that the use of Elderberry as a pharmaceutical was as
important to the Chumash as its use for tools.*
Today: Today Elderberry continues to be lauded for its medicinal values. Modern compounds of Elderberry are used for many of the same reasons Elderberry was used by Native People and to aid in treating additional modern medical problems as well.

* To read more about Chumash tools, instruments and medicines, see pages 196-198 of “CHUMASH ETHNOBOTANY, PLANT KNOWLEDGE AMONG THE CHUMASH PEOPLE OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA” by Dr. Jan Timbrook.

Use With Care, There are Risks

The leaves, stems and roots of the Elderberry, as well as the seeds in the berries, have chemical compounds in them that metabolize into cyanide. Simply put, they are poisonous and can make you very ill! The only part of the plant that can be eaten is the fruit … but only after it is cooked.

Lots of Folklore and Magic Surround the Elderberry

Elder Mother
Elder Mother

It was believed in medieval times that the most likely time to encounter fairies was on Midsummer’s Eve, and under an Elder Tree. They also contended that chopping down an Elder Tree could release a spirit called the Elder Mother, who would take her revenge unless you had asked her permission first, and chanted her song. During various pagan festivals, people wore elderflowers to protect against witches and elderberry was planted to banish witches in various parts of the world. The wood of choice for making flutes used to summon spirits was, of course, Elderwood.

elder wandAnd finally, we will end this Treasure Hunt with the “Elder Wand”, the most powerful wand in the wizarding world of Harry Potter … the one wand to rule them all. Wizards think Elderberry is pretty great too!

Living With the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #14


mesa edgeIt All Starts with a Tiny Cactus

This Treasure Hunt is not about a gift from Mother Nature, but a story about a telephone line. It begins a hundred years ago with, surprisingly enough, a gift from Mother Nature, a tiny Prickly Pear Cactus. This little plant was on the property of the eldest child (Kate Bell) of one of our area’s most famous pioneers; Don Nicholas Den, owner of Rancho dos Pueblos. On Kate’s 76th
birthday, she had a giant celebration, convening the entire clan. And, as part of the celebration, she made a prophetic and wildly accurate prediction. She pointed to a struggling tiny cactus and offered that whomever sunk a well near that cactus would strike oil and become very rich.

As time went by, the tiny cactus prospered and became a large patch*. In 1927, the oily aroma in the area of the large patch launched the beginnings of oil exploration at Ellwood. But after more than a year of frustration, test wells continued to come up dry. However, in mid 1928 with one last gasp effort, cactideeper and much closer to the cactus patch, they struck oil and struck it BIG! This one well alone yielded the richest oil yet found in California and ended up producing over a million barrels of high-quality crude. With two separate oil fields, one on land and one in the ocean, the coast at Ellwood quickly became a hot bed of oil activity; including extraction, refining, storage, and transportation. And because the area had so much going on, Kate Bell’s son-in-law feared that the revered cactus patch would be destroyed in the hustle and bustle of the oil field. So, he built an iron fence around the patch to protect it.

*The “patch” can still be seen today east of Haskell’s Beach … on a hillside below the Sandpiper Golf Course.

Enter A “Curious Someone” From Across the Sea

All during the 1930s, there was so much readily available product at Ellwood that tankers from nations all over the world came there to procure oil. The captain of one of these tankers was a highly esteemed Japanese Naval Officer named Kozo Nishino, one who had joined the submarine service in 1923 and captained several oil tankers during the 1930s. As a result of this experience he was very familiar with the Ellwood field and the surrounding coastline. It was on such a mission in the late 1930s, and while his tanker was being loaded, Commander Nishino decided to stroll along our lovely coast and happened upon Kate Bell’s cactus patch – now protected behind the iron fence. He decided that he would like a “cutting” of this strange plant for his garden back in Japan. Unfortunately, he fell into the patch and had to be pulled out by his crew. There were also other things that had to be pulled out … the cactus spines embedded in various parts of his body. While viewing the accident and recovery, American oil workers at the site offered only loud guffaws and embarrassing remarks. Commander Nishino was purported to have vowed revenge*.

*For the full story and wonderful photos of Kate Bell and her cactus see Goleta History.

In early 1941, with his career on a definite upward trajectory, Commander Nishino was awarded the newest, biggest “German-like” submarine: one that was the pride of the Japanese fleet. In fall of the year this sub played a part in the “run-up” to Pearl Harbor and was on patrol in the area on that fateful day. As soon as it was acknowledged that the attack was wildly successful, Captain Nishino was ordered to proceed to the west coast of the U.S. on a mission to attack America’s merchant ships.

Commander Nishino's L-17 Submarine was 365 feet long
Commander Nishino’s L-17 Submarine was 365 feet long

Subs in Our Backyard

Early Japanese strategy was one of inflicting psychological, rather than physical, damage to the U.S. mainland. The campaign started a scant week after Pearl Harbor, when nine Japanese submarines were deployed to United States shores with orders to eliminate American supply ships and attack nine coastal cities and lighthouses up and down the Pacific coast. Almost all the targets were in California. This was a concerted effort to frighten the American public into thinking a large-scale attack on the mainland was coming next.
As a result, submarines were often spotted from shore in the Santa Barbara area and duly reported to Naval officers stationed here. These officers would then pass the information on to San Diego. On February 16,1942, an employee at the Ellwood oil field reported a sub to the Santa Barbara officer and it was immediately passed on. Three days later the same sub appeared, and the report was again made to the local naval officer who again passed it on to San Diego. This time the return message did not say “Thanks”. It said “Stop sending us these submarine sighting stories – the coast is full of California gray whales. That is what you are seeing, not subs.” The local officer groaned and reported back, “A whale is 20 feet long.* This submarine is 300 feet long.”

*Gray whales are actually more like 35-40 feet long, but they obviously did not have the same great whale books we have today.

Commander Nishino Returns to Ellwood

Captain Nishino, commander of one of the nine subs, was given three potential targets. When he checked them out, the first two were very heavily fortified and armed. Ellwood had not a single gun. So … four days after the “Those are whales, not subs report”, Captain Nishino returned, once again, to the scene of the Cactus Patch incident to lob 16-25, 5 ½ inch shells into the Ellwood coast. He timed the 20-minute shelling just as Americans were settling down around their radios to hear President Roosevelt’s fireside chat to the nation: a broadcast in honor of George Washington’s birthday. No one was killed or hurt during the attack and although the sub fired at a pair of oil storage tanks, they missed. Damage to the entire site was minimal perhaps $500 – $1000*.
Did Captain Nishino come back for revenge? Probably not. The captain was a career military officer, trained to follow orders and he most likely did just that. He did however, bend the truth more than a little bit when he radioed back to Japan saying he’d “left Santa Barbara in flames.”

Japanese propaganda postcard depicting Ellwood shelling
Japanese propaganda postcard depicting Ellwood shelling

The Ellwood shelling was a rousing success for Japan, because there were massive repercussions throughout America. Panic ensued on both coasts and especially in California. Most shameful was that the attack on Ellwood put an end to any shred of opposition to incarcerating Japanese Americans and ushered in a disgraceful period of illegal and unconstitutional internment. Those of Japanese descent were stripped of all their belongings, property etc. and 48 hours later shipped to camps around the country where they lived for more than 3 years. Of those 120,000 people, 70% were American citizens.

*To learn more about the Ellwood shelling, visit Goleta History.

So What Does This Have To Do With More Mesa?

An America at war needed a way to decide if we were being attacked from the air. Because the west coast of the U. S. was viewed as very vulnerable, and as radar systems were in their infancy, aircraft-spotting stations in our area were house graphicbuilt very quickly after Pearl Harbor. Our “line” of spotting stations stretched from Tecolote Canyon to east of Hope Ranch. Stations were staffed by both men and women, all civilian volunteers; among them some of Santa Barbara’s most prominent citizens. These folks worked around the clock in two-hour shifts. Using binoculars and checking against charts of various Japanese planes, spotters reported to “filter” stations using a buried phone line. The filter stations would then forward authenticated reports to an Aircraft Warning Service.

ground observers corpsOur system was probably an early section of the Ground Observers Corps (GOC), a World War II Civil Defense program of the United States Army Air Forces to protect United States territory against air attack. By the beginning of November 1942, there were 1.5 million civilian observers in the GOC, who at 14,000 coastal observation posts performed naked eye and binocular searches to detect German or Japanese aircraft.

About the Telephone Line …

For those of you who read our periodic More Mesa updates, you are probably weary of our persistent nagging about the unstable nature of More Mesa’s cliffs. For those of you who never heard our warning message, here it is …
It is dangerous to go near the cliff edge at any time, and more importantly, never go near the edge after a rain.

What does this have to do with the telephone line?  It’s all about “what went where” during WW II. During the Ground Observers Corps era, spotter shelters, built on concrete pads, were positioned relatively close to the edge of the cliff. Telephone lines to report sightings were buried much further back from the edge.

More Mesa’s extremely unstable shales erode, on average, about 10 inches a year. (Since I minored in math, I’ll do the numbers.) Ten inches a year since the beginning of WW II equates to the current cliff edge being roughly 65 feet further toward the mountains than it was at the beginning of WW II. The spotter shelters have long disappeared into the Pacific. And, almost all but a very few, and very tiny, sections of the phone lines are also gone. With luck, and extreme care, you might catch a glimpse of a small remnant of this important and bygone system at the cliff edge. In a few years these reminders too will vanish into the deep, marking the end of a tumultuous era that began almost a century ago.