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Monday, October 29, 2012

Awww, Nuts…

homeplace walnut treeWhen I was a kid growing up in the frontier town of Wenatchee, there was a wilderness right across the road from the little house at 16 Wilson Street. Well…not exactly a wilderness but a city park, Washington Park. In those pre-video game/t.v. days the park was a delightful playground. There was a merry-go-round to spin us dizzy and a wading pool to cool us on summer days. A few things I remember: the park’s summer crafts program to keep little hands busy (away from matches, perhaps?) and little children from being bored. For a nominal materials fee we could buy multi-colored plastic braid by the yard. Soon our nimble little fingers were weaving braid novelties: key chain holders, lanyards, bracelets…. We learned the flat braid, the diamond braid, the square braid. And our parents learned that a quarter or two was well worth the investment just to keep us out of their hair for an hour or two.

The wading pool I remember not so much for its cooling splish-splash but for my eager anticipation that Judy Burowski who lived in the house at the end of our block would be among the waders that day. If she were, wearing that stunning pink bathing suit I loved and which so complimented her deep summer tan, taking a dip that afternoon would be a joy. But enough of that….

Washington Park, too, was an arboretum of sorts: pine trees (one fall I found a hibernating colony of lady bugs in the crevices of one’s trunk—shiny black beetles with red spots!), spruce and other evergreens, and black walnut trees. In the fall we would shuffle through the fallen leaves beneath the black walnuts looking for their mast (mast? an interesting word I learned from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling: the term for fallen nuts from a nut bearing tree). An hour’s effort foraging among the leaves would yield us a paper bag half full of nuts and black-stained hands and fingers. 

There are those, I’m sure, who think the phrase “a tough nut to crack” pertains to Brazil nuts. To that camp I’d say, “You’ve never tried to split open a black walnut, then.” Mostly shell and little meat, that’s the black walnut. It takes a heavy hammer swing to sunder a a black walnut and to extract its meat is like separating gold from a chunk of ore. Perhaps the unique flavor of the black walnut comes in part from the considerable labor that goes into freeing the meat from its shell.

Black walnut trees. We have them in the Valley. One I noticed for the first time just a few weeks ago. It towers above the west bank of the slough adjacent to the cornfield on Fish and Game land. When you stop at the stop sign where the upper and lower loop roads intersect, gaze southwest across the water, and you’ll see the tree. Just look for the “No Trespassing” sign nailed to the trunk; you can’t miss it.

Two ancient black walnuts shade Riley Slough next to the old Victorian home (the late residence of the Aldens). With Stately walnut treestheir massive trunks and leaders these giants are stately and impressive trees. In fact the tree closest the road has such a thick and lengthy leader it is experiencing, in arborist jargon, “mechanical failure”: the branch is too long and heavy to support its own weight and has begun to split.Black walnut tree

And there’s Jeff Miller’s grove of black walnuts on the north side of Riley Slough. A few years back I ran into Jeff and his young daughter at a local Starbucks. We chatted for a while, and I’m not quite sure how the topic came up, but we found ourselves talking about college, the high cost of tuition, and the difficulty parents have paying their children’s education bills these days. Jeff then informed me of his unique way to send his kids through college. A walnut scholarship, I guess you could call it: that grove of black walnuts is not destined for mast, cookies or black walnut ice cream. As a woodworking/furniture medium, black walnut is a highly sought after hardwood and for nice, straight logs, commands a premium price per thousand board feet. By the time his kids are college age, Jeff told me, he hopes the timber from that grove of walnuts will pay their way through college. If there’s a more creative way of funding a child’s higher education, I have yet to discover fund

Now if it’s walnuts you’re after, good, old English walnuts, it’s the Barrell Man you want to contact. In late August I just happened to glance at the tree in Martys’ front yard. I’ve never seen such a crop of walnuts! The green orbs were roped on the tree like clusters of grapes.  A few years back the Martys cut their walnut crop in half by felling a second tree in the yard. Marty nut cropIf both trees still stood this year, they would have to scoop their driveway and rake the lawn just to leave their house. The Barrell Man had placed a stepladder by a low hanging nut-laden branch so he wouldn’t bump into the obstruction when he mowed the lawn.

By now the tree has shed most of its crop and a few days ago the Barrell Man was on his hands and knees in the midst of a humongous litter of mast. He had already gathered a plastic garbage can full of nuts, he told me. Mrs. Marty had three dehydrators going full time in the house drying nuts gathered earlier. “This must be the biggest crop of walnuts you’ve ever had!” I remarked. squirrel heavenApparently not. A few years back, I’m told, the Martys shelled out over one hundred pounds of meat from the season’s crop. The Barrell Man takes orders for his walnuts. One lady, he told me, has already requested twenty pounds of shelled nuts. If he charged as much for his walnuts as do the stores for bags of shelled nuts, he could go into the nut business and allow his barrell enterprise to roll its separate way.

I thought it would be nice having a resident walnut tree here on the place, and when our old dairy farming neighbor Herman Zylstra told me he was going to add a walnut tree to his arboretum and would I like one one, too, I said certainly. That walnut tree is now eighty feet tall (Herman’s, unfortunately was shaded out by a number of taller trees), I’d estimate, and in addition to its wonderful summer shade, provides us enough nuts to do our holiday baking. Some years I’ve even had a surplus to take to the Sky Valley Food Bank. Our tree, however, is some species other than English walnut; the nuts are more oblong than round and for some reason don’t seem to develop properly. A pollination problem, perhaps (I’ve heard black walnuts are excellent pollinators for other species)? Or does our species of walnut require a longer growing season?

I enjoy shuffling around under the tree these days looking for nuts just as much as I did in Washington Park those years long ago. Of course, I’m never alone as I circle the tree. Its canopy is usually hopping with squawking blue jays and a squirrel or two (one season I counted five). They knock loose the husks and the occasional walnut which clatter down on me as I hunt below.

Once a bucket is full, I bring it to the house, fill it with water and stir the walnuts vigorously to wash them. Then into the garden cart they go to dry on the south side of the house. From the cart to the hearth behind the woodstove for a final curing. On days the woodstove is purring away I like to shell the walnuts: the shells make a nice crackle when you toss them on the fire.nut wagon

If one were to play word association and I said “squirrel,” what would you say? “Nuts,” would be my answer. Lunchtime and I’m sitting at the table gazing out at the walnut tree. One branch appears to be having a seizure, like a wet dog shaking itself. Otherwise not a leaf stirs. A squirrel, of course, cruising the canopy of the tree  for nuts.  The way a squirrel moves about a tree makes me think it must have been a monkey in another life (or vice versa).

I wonder about the ratio between the number of nuts a squirrel actually consumes and the amount it buries somewhere. Jays and squirrels alike are genetically programmed to be nut gardeners; burying their plunder is a sort of Darwinian foresight—a nut gravy train, if you will, for years’ bounty on down the line. I watched one of the furry little fellows bury a nut in the backyard the other day. Careful to note where the nut was buried, I went out to unearth it. Even though it was only a matter of seconds for the nut’s internment and I was most certain of its “grave,” I couldn’t find the nut anywhere! Come next August I’m sure to find it though when a miniature tree sprouts in the middle of the backyard somewhere.

Because it’s “all in one basket” (or wagon) until it dries, I’ve learned to keep a watchful eye on my nut crop. A couple years ago when half a wagon full of nuts was drying, I was sitting at the computer and noticed a squirrel rush by the window--nothing unusual during nut season. They sashay back and forth along the property line, a nut clenched between their teeth, which they bury in the hedge, lawn, mole mound…somewhere… anywhere…and then it’s back to the walnut tree again for more plunder. This squirrel, however, seemed to be exceptionally fast, a distracting gray blur zipping back and forth like a tennis ball in play.frisky fellow More than one squirrel, I thought…has to be…three, four, a half dozen perhaps? And that walnut tree is a long ways away. How could a squirrel make the round trip so quickly? The answer was obvious: “it” wasn’t covering the distance at all. I rushed outside to find the wagon nearly emptied; the squirrel (yes, just a solitary bushy tail) had nearly cleaned me out. Now during nut season I closely monitor squirrel activity in the driveway. I guess that’s what folks mean by “squirreling things away.”

The nut harvest continues. Blustery day aside, the Barrell Man is underneath his walnut tree today when I walk by. Bucket in one hand, cane in the other, he’s gathering the nuts loosened by last night’s windstorm. “How goes the harvest?” I ask. “We’ve shelled out one hundred fifty pounds so far,” the Barrell Man replies. He plunks a couple walnuts in his bucket, laughs and says, “The wife gives me hell whenever I come in with more.” And that’s a direct quote.harvest continues

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