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A while ago I reviewed The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe. It’s probably one of the most important books that I’ve read so far. In the book, Carol frequently refers to another book, Buffalo Bird Woman’s garden, particularly when discussing food preservation. Buffalo Bird Woman’s garden is an account of Hidatsa American Indian gardening techniques, as told by a Hidatsa woman, born about 1839. The techniques were told to the author of the book, Gilbert L. Wilson, in the early 1900’s. I found another reference to the book recently, so ordered it, and what a gem of a book it is.

The book details cultivation techniques, harvesting, processing, and storage for the main crops grown by the Hidatsa. These are Sunflowers, corn, squash, and beans. The book is worth reading for this alone, and there is a lot that I have learnt just from reading this, but the insights into Hidatsa life, are fascinating. Burying food stores in caches, to hide them from marauding Sioux, put my problems with rabbits, rats and pigeons into perspective. Also interesting is the need to leave the fields fallow for two years, for the weeds to restore the fertility taken by the crops. It might not seem to be relevant today, but it shows the value of green manure crops, in this case weeds, to restore fertility.

The book looks at how fields were cleared, planted, plant spacings, tools, harvesting, seed saving, storage, and recipes for using the vegetables grown. One interesting recipe was for the making of Sunflower seed balls. The seeds were parched in a clay pot, and then pounded into a fine meal. This meal was then formed into balls, and shaken to bring out the oil from the seed, and cement the balls together. She says that a warrior used to carry one of these balls, wrapped in buffalo heart skin, in the bottom of a bag. The warrior would then nibble on the ball when worn with fatigue, or overcome with sleep and weariness. It would then revive him. Amazingly, at the time of reading this, I had just looked at the tables in John Jeavons’ book, How to Grow More vegetables, and noted that sunflower seeds contain 2,585 calories per pound. Buffalo bird woman’s account notes that she enclosed the ball with both hands, suggesting quite a large ball, and so would have been quite heavy, and therefore full of calories. I went straight out and harvested my sunflower heads, rather than leave them for the birds.

In the Deppe book, the author dehydrates squashes, having read about doing so in this book, again showing that there are techniques that hold a relevance for us, particularly when considering a post peak oil world, with less fossil fuel.

Even without the usefulness of the book, it is worth reading just for the insight that it gives into the way of life of the Hidatsa. How they worked, lived, and organised themselves. A short book, not too expensive, and easy to read. What more could you ask for in a book?

Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, by Gilbert L. Wilson