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Nourishment by Fred Provenza

What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom

Sitting down to read a book is a fantasy around here. I always have one I’m pretending to read, and pick up at the end of the day, only to fall asleep after a page or two. During the day there’s no time for sitting and having free hands at the same time. In the end, I listen to about a dozen audio books in the time it takes me to read a single physical book. I started reading Nourishment a couple of months ago, and I’m only about 10% of the way into it. But I have a feeling I’m going to want to talk about this book more than once, so no need to wait.

Provenza’s book explores what we can learn about human nutrition from studying animals. I was never particularly interested in human nutrition before I started living with goats. I had to become a nutrition expert of sorts to care for them properly, and I couldn’t help but think about my own body’s needs in light of what I had learned about my ruminant friends. And so my interest in human nutrition began, noticing the similarities and differences between people and goats. Provenza has taken a professional approach to this comparison over the last 30 years, in contrast to my casual attention over a third of the time.

Today I want to focus on a particular observation of my own that is explained delightfully in Chapter 2 of the book. A couple of things about the relationship between my goats and our sagebrush plants always intrigued me. First, they never eat the fall flower stalks until they have dropped their seeds and are dry. How lucky for the plant, and her efforts to reproduce, and also for the quail that depend on her seeds, that the goats wait until this work is complete and then consume only the leftovers. Because I am a scientist myself, I’ve tasted both the fresh green flower stalks and also the dried stalks, and from this exercise it’s clear that the goats aren’t practicing some kind of ecological altruism, they are just avoiding foods that aren’t palatable. The fresh flower stalks are bitter and astringent, too high in tannins for pleasure, while the dried stalks have a clean nutty flavor. This relationship between herbivores and plants is not an accident of course, but is the evolutionary chemical communication that makes it possible for them to thrive together. Juvenile plants have a similar strategy, putting a lot of their energy toward the production of tannins that make them unattractive to herbivores until they are mature enough to tolerate being nibbled. I’m always surprised when I see baby sagebrush plants with their tender slivery green leaves looking so delicious, but clearly untouched. Those plants are talking, and the goats are listening.

It will be especially interesting to watch this chemistry lesson play out in the spring, when I attempt to shepherd the goats through a burn scar of resprouting scrub oaks and tiny sagebrush seedlings on the way to the remaining mature chapparal. Will the plant’s defenses be enough to convince the goats to walk so far without eating? Is this part of nature’s strategy for fire recovery?

Purchase Nourishment directly from Chelsea Green Publishing here.


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