Category Archives: cache creek inn

The tyranny of walnut grading

Walnut Color Chart

Walnut Color Chart

“The USDA agent randomly selects a bunch of walnuts and scatters them on a grid…” thus began a conversation with our neighbor up here in the Capay Valley about why his walnuts are lying on the ground instead of being harvested. I’m not saying the USDA is at fault! It’s just the way the system works. If you want to sell your walnuts through a broker, the walnuts must pass a grading test. The walnuts are sorted on the tray according to size, color, disease and if sold as cracked walnuts, the number of halves v chunks. If too many walnuts fall through the grid, they are inferior for size…making it useless to proceed to the other steps. Brokers don’t pay enough for small walnuts to make it profitable for the grower. When electricity costs are too high to pay for irrigation, as was the case with our neighbor, the walnuts are small…and left to the squirrels.

“I want to shoot those squirrels!” our neighbor’s wife rolled her eyes. “They’re everywhere.”

My own walnuts are small, but I harvest them, crack them myself and sell them directly to consumers or use them in breakfast recipes at my B&B, Cache Creek Inn. They are fresh, plump and colorful, a mouthful of petite walnuts.

The first year I lived in the valley, I stopped by the roadside to check out hundreds of pounds of walnuts plowed into a virtual road under a grove of trees. It looked like the growers decided to use walnuts for paving under the trees. These weren’t waiting for harvest; trucks had driven on top of them. Could I be imagining things? I cracked some of the nuts: wonderful meat inside! So I began gathering some. Shortly, two men drove up in a truck to stop me from doing that.

“I’m afraid we can’t let you do that,” one said.

“They’re no good anyhow,” the other commented. “Most of the shells are empty and the other nuts are too small to be of any use.”

“They could be of use to me…or the food bank,” I offered.

No gleaning allowed; that was the rule. These walnuts were going to rot.


“I’m a coon hunter extraordinaire.”

“You’ve got raccoon problems? I killed one at my house with an arrow. Right through the chest.”  This comment from a hunter staying at my B&B Cache Creek Inn last night. I had complained that a raccoon – or some other critter – had eaten two of my ducks in the last week. Nick lives in Walnut Creek. He and I both keep poultry and he was telling me about his encounter with a raccoon who had been after both his hens and his dog.

“You hunt with a bow and arrow?”

“Yes, that’s what I’m using to hunt wild boars up in the hills in the BLM land.” He pointed out the trail he planned taking, asking me to note his whereabouts in case he didn’t return home by 11 p.m. The “three ponds” trail takes off from the high bridge on highway 16. I had been on this trail myself, only going as far as the first pond.

“This is my first boar hunt, to be honest,” he said as he ate lunch at my kitchen counter. “I got interested after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

“…but I thought Michael Pollan was a vegetarian?”

“Oh no. He describes going on a boar hunt in your area. These pigs are special. They are descendants of pigs brought over by Italians decades ago. Those pigs escaped and bred with the wild pigs, resulting in a very flavorful pig.”

I was intrigued and decided I would have to read this book. Nick set out for an evening hunt, with a head lamp and down vest, plus bright orange hunters’ gear and his bow and arrow. The head lamp was important, as the moon is in the third quarter and doesn’t rise until after midnight. I spoke with him when he returned about 7 pm. “No pig, but lots of beautiful countryside and deer.”

He is getting up before dawn again tomorrow morning and coming back for a hearty breakfast around 9 a.m. Originally Nick had planned to stay at the Cache Creek Casino but decided our B&B was a better choice: closer to the hills and more peaceful. As I write, coyotes are howling and the milky way is spangled over the sky.

“Madrones Don’t Like People”

(photos to come)

I was playing with my recorder group and then we stopped to take a breather. We had just played a difficult Shostikovich piece which I didn’t like.  Laurel rested her instrument on her knee and asked, “Tell us what’s new in Rumsey! How are your fruit trees doing?”

“Most of them are doing OK; some are struggling,” I answered. Last year I planted many young plums, apples, peaches, nectarines, cherries, pomegranates and pluots.  Gophers have eaten one or two; some have succumbed to the aridity, but most are growing slowly and surely.

“You pet them and talk to them, don’t you?” continued Laurel. She knows me.

“Well, I was embarrassed and kinda shocked to find myself kissing one of my trees the other day. I realized what I had done and stepped back, feeling rather weird.”

“What kind of tree was it?” Nancy asked, laughing.

“It was a madrone. Madrones are notoriously difficult to transplant and I just bought two of them. One was a little wilted at the top, and I was stroking it – and then without thinking about it, I leaned over and kissed it!”

Everyone laughed except Nancy who said, “Not only are they difficult to transplant…They don’t like people.”


“Well, that’s what everyone tells me. I tried growing one in my yard one year. You know, they look so beautiful with their glistening red bark when it rains. But it didn’t do well and then it died. My friends all said, ‘You can’t grow madrones anywhere near people. They just don’t like them.”

I thought about it. It’s true that madrones seem to grow only in wild woods. But what did she mean, “Everyone tells me“? Why hadn’t I ever heard this? I even went to a propagation society meeting at the SF conservatory of flowers once and asked the experts how to propagate madrones.  They weren’t interested in answering my question. I couldn’t figure it out; the speaker just shrugged me off. Maybe they’d had their own difficulties with madrones and didn’t want to admit they didn’t understand the true reason.

I had once heard another tree story that I found odd, about persimmons. I planted one in my yard in Mill Valley and it died soon afterward. A neighbor stopped by to tell me I had planted it in the wrong direction. Wrong direction? I asked. “Yes, you have to plant the grafting joint pointing due East. You’ve planted it in another direction. It will never grow.” ?!!

Irma asked, “So, what did the madrone do after you kissed it?”

“It just stood there.”

John added, “Well, you’d best plant it far from humans.”

Too late for that. I’ve potted it up near my front door. I’ll let you know how it goes.



Cortina Rancheria Endangered

Rancheria: an amount of land set aside for  small native American communities, specifically in California.

I drove to the Cortina Rancheria one day, just to see what was there. The Wintun Indians have lived in this community for over a hundred years, probably much longer. It is not easy to find, although a mapview will show that the rancheria is just over a range of hills from our B&B in Rumsey.  I drove north on highway 16 to its junction with highway 20; then east until I came to a two-lane road winding between oak covered hills.  Deep within the hills, and at the end of the road I found the community with its cluster of homes and a…roundhouse!

I was too nervous about disturbing residents to get out of my car, although I longed to discover when and if the roundhouse is still used for celebrations.  I had read accounts of the Big Head Dance being performed at the Cortina Rancheria outside an earlier roundhouse in 1916. Anthropologists from the Hearst Museum were present to take photos. It was possibly the last Big Head Dance performed, certainly one of the last. The dance is named after the turkey feathers worn on the headdress of the male dancers.  The feathers splay out in all directions. The dance is involved with mystery and magic, keeping evil spirits at bay. This blog entry isn’t really about the Big Head Dance, just the fact that the Cortina Rancheria is an important historical place for Wintun Indians.

A Wintun roundhouse where Big Head Dances were performed.  This roundhouse was at a neighboring rancheria near Cortina, Grindstone Creek.


Big Head Dancers

Today I learned that the Cortina Rancheria is threatened by fire. The “Highway 16 fire” has bloomed out of control in the last few days. Reports say the beautiful Cache Creek Canyon, just above my home at Cache Creek Inn, is blackened and charred. The fire has spread over the hills toward the rancheria.

Today’s fire nearing the rancheria