The Acorn Harvest in Iraqi Kurdistan
‘Khwa klawi bo baruu krduwa’ is an Iraqi Kurdish aphorism which means ‘God has made the acorn a hat.’ Like ‘consider the lilies of the field,’ it means don’t worry about what you will wear, what you will eat, because God will provide. A second, more oblique meaning refers to the idea of justice, that God will provide the thing that fits you. But there isn’t much justice for the Kurdish people in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
In the village of Sidakan, close to Iraq’s borders with Iran and Turkey, low mist is welcomed as a deterrent to drones; at night, low cloud is welcomed as a deterrent to planes. Commentators watch the patterns of flight cancellation – three flights cancelled on the 7th for Turkish Airlines; flights cancelled between the 12th and the 18th for Austrian Airways – and try to predict which country, Iran or Turkey, will attempt an attack on ‘their’ Kurdish separatist group during that time. The danger zone covers all the villages in the mountains, and maps closely onto the distribution of oaks in Iraq.
The Zagros Mountains were formed forty million years ago. A network of GPS stations across Iran monitors their continuing growth, about 25 mm a year. Sharp peaks of limestone, unsmoothed by time, spike the backs of long ridges with few passes and deep gorges. It’s a landscape which means bad roads and rockfalls, flat tyres and overheating lorries. It also protects distinct flora and fauna – looking at old oaks growing in a gorge on Mount Safin last week, we were interrupted by wolves from a cave above – as well as distinct languages and cultural practices.
There are four species of oak in Iraq, Quercus ithaburensis, Quercus macranthera, Quercus infectoria and Quercus libani. Within these categories, imposed by scientists who studied herbarium specimens in the 1930s or genetic samples taken from trees in Turkey or Lebanon, are many variations. As the mountains rose, the oaks came to occupy different ecological niches, twisting their leaves, dropping them and regreening them at different times, altering their bark, varying the size of their acorns.
Neanderthals like those who lived at the Shanidar Cave coppiced oaks for firewood and ate acorns. Homo sapiens began cultivating the trees about forty thousand years ago. Wood and acorns from the mountains supported the earliest civilisations developing on the plains of Mesopotamia. Every autumn, still, people in Sidakan harvest acorns, normally in the last week of October: the trees are shaken, hit with sticks or ruffled with stones; the acorns fall and tumble into shallow trenches downhill. They are transferred to sacks or the backs of pick-up trucks and sorted before being stored or driven to market in Sulaymaniyah or Choman. This year the harvest was late, in the third week of November, and there were few acorns, perhaps because of the drought or the late spring. Last year was a mast year, and the ground was rolling with them.
Differences between the oak species are clearest in the autumn when acorns hang heavy on the trees. The largest, known as baruu in Kurdish, 7 cm long and 3 cm wide, are still eaten, roasted whole like chestnuts, and the steaming hot centre can explode with dizzying ferocity ‘baruu la dem takeewa’ – ‘he talks as though an acorn has exploded in his mouth’. Baruu trees grow slowly, with their roots deep in cracks in the limestone to pull up enough water to swell their acorns throughout the dry summer. They are milder than most acorns, but still have a tang of tannins.
Tannins are the bitter compounds that oaks (like other plants) use to deter pests. Acorns are also used for animal feed, tanning and medicine, for which the tannins are essential. The levels are higher in mazuu, a rocket-shapedacorn 5 cm long. It’s too bitter for people to eat, but good enough for goats and sheep. Tannins soaked out of the acorn cups are used as a wash to soothe pain and prevent postpartum infections.
For hundreds of years, the trade in tannins was globally important. Quercus infectoria is so called because tannins from its galls was processed to make Aleppo ink, used in manuscripts across Syria and Iraq and all the way to England. Sixty thousand tonnes of valonia oak were exported from Izmir each year in the early 20th century. All this trade has disappeared, replaced by petrochemicals.
You can smell oil in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Soot from the gas flare down the valley is visible on the ancient trees at Lalish, and there’s crude on the air from the polluted hectares near the Assyrian site at Khinnis; a metallic bar across the back of the nose. In the mountains, though, the main fuel is still wood. Poplar, hawthorn and walnut are used, but oak is best because the trees can be cut regularly and regrow from deep roots. The trees are spaced out and allow light to flood the ground. By the river Zab, broad canopies support stork’s nests in March, but elsewhere the trees are scarecrow-like from shredding, or deceptively youthful after being coppiced close to the ground.
It’s easy to forget how old these trees are when they seem so slight and young. A haze of autumn colour across a valley looks like saplings springing up in a rewilding experiment, but the slender trunks sprout from huge, buried coppice stools wide enough to be more than a thousand years old.
Charities have been buying up acorns in quantity – a hundred tonnes – from across the mountain range to try to reforest some of the areas that have lost their tree cover, particularly the Erbil green belt. It’s an attempt to defeat dust storms, improve air quality, reduce the risk of flooding and lower the temperatures that ravaged Iraq this summer. The charities get much of their money from oil companies; other potential sources of funding mostly stay clear because of reputational risk.
I drove into the mountains last March to look for the wolf’s grapes fritillary, Fritillaria uva-vulpis, in the area where Wilfred Thesiger had found it in March 1947, one of the more recent records of the flower in the international literature. There was no sign of it; instead, in the sleet under the leafless oaks, were sheets of a white-blue hyacinth. The oaks themselves were strange: their trunks were narrow enough to put my arms round, a sign they had been coppiced fifty years earlier; their spiky tops showed they had been shredded more recently.
‘Trees are an invitation to think about time,’ Rebecca Solnit has written, ‘and to travel in it the way they do, by standing still and reaching out and down.’ At first all I could see were the patterns of warfare: trees hurriedly cut for firewood during the exodus of 1991, as more than a million people fled Saddam Hussein’s retribution; trees left to regrow after the depopulation of villages during the genocide of 1986-88; trees destroyed to remove cover for fighters; larger branches cut for houses and development. I heard a plane overhead in the low cloud and fled.
Not much further on, I passed a sign to the Shanidar Cave. The fossilised evidence discovered there includes traces of flowers. There is disagreement as to whether, sixty thousand years ago, rodents brought plants into the cave, or Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers.
I asked for the wolf’s grapes fritillary at tea shops by the side of the road, and at flower stalls selling nergiz, the white and yellow mountain narcissus. The fritillary would bloom with two other edible flowers, I was told, under the oaks, but it was a very cold spring, so not yet.
This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.