“Consider the Acorn.”

   Orion Magazine. Sept./Oct. 2015 

Is there anything more perfect than an acorn with its jaunty beret, its burnished shell so much like the shape of a human face — wide at the forehead, tapering down to an excellent chin? What is more intricate and delicate than the designs on that clever hat — small triangles of hardened brown or green, layered over one another endlessly to create a design and texture of Fibonacci perfection, as appealing as any woven cloth?

There are plenty of natural objects to match the acorn, of course: a silk-smooth, palm-sized, heart-shaped stone; a bit of bright blue–speckled bird shell; a finely sculpted pinecone, its edges frosted with pungent sap; a tiny bleached skull of a mouse at the bottom of the woodpile; a brilliant pink shard of crab shell; an imaginative stick curved in the shape of a woman’s dancing body; the husk of a spiky brown beechnut, splayed open like a tulip, the nut itself carted off to some squirrel’s winter pantry; a tiny bird’s nest woven of birch bark, pine needles, and blue baling twine; and oh! — a bright red feather from the wing of a scarlet tanager. Yes, there are plenty of natural treasures to match the acorn, but none to outshine.

If you are a collector of such things you know what I’m talking about. You often find your pant and coat pockets, the zippered compartments of your daypack, the window sills in your kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom, your desktop (at home and work), the edges of your bookshelves, and the corners of your porch stocked with stones, cones, nuts, feathers, dried leaves, and seed pods. You try to remember where they came from. When you decided to bring them home you promised you would never forget where you found them. You vowed that the object would serve as a memento of a certain place, a certain day, a certain slant of light, a felt sense, the person you were with. But you forgot. Never mind: these natural objects still ground you and speak to you of the joy of attending to the world’s beautiful, small things.

Sometimes you wonder why that stone, why that flower, that leaf caught your eye. Sometimes it might occur to you that the supposedly inanimate object itself drew you to it — calling to you pick me up, bring me home. Is it really so absurd to think such a thing? Japanese stone artists, after all, believe that the key to their artistry is listening to the voice of the stone.

The next time you stroll to the mailbox, walk through a park, or along a wooded trail, mosey beside the seashore, a lake, or a pond, imagine all those voices — pebbles, feathers, nuts and seed pods, bones, pinecones, shells and leaves — clamoring for your attention, buzzing with the hum of life that flows through us all. What are they saying? I am here. Just that. The objects remind you that there is indeed something powerful and wondrous at work in a realm that you, despite your efforts and years, understand so little about. The natural objects you bring home to tuck into the nooks of your life are your direct line to something awesome and holy — call it nature.

Let us, just for a moment, consider the acorn. I pick one from the dish of paperclips on my desk. This particular acorn is the ruddy, burly, fruit of the exquisite red oak. The perfect pattern of overlapping triangles that decorate this nut’s tawny top defies any human craftsman. A master knitter would be challenged to improve upon such a design. Could a painter create colors more artfully juxtaposed — the reddish brown of the cap, the slightly more dusky brown of the shell, the darker gray-brown of the tiny spike at the bottom, and the woody stem at the top? The acorn’s textures are so sensuously varied — the bumpy but silky feel of the top, the slightly corrugated but smooth feel of the shell, the sharp prick of the spike at the bottom, the rough scratchiness of the nubbin on top. In this particular acorn there is a tiny hole, no doubt the entrance for a worm. What a smart worm — inside the nut it found food and shelter. I snap off the beret and whack the nut open atop my desk with the heel of a shoe. Just as I thought! The worm has come and gone, leaving the contents of the shell reduced to a medium-brown powder.

Acorns of course are not only aesthetic marvels, they are also a vital part of the woodland food chain. Where I live in the North Woods of Maine, acorns are the main food for turkey, squirrel, deer, bear, blue jays, quail, and even waterfowl. As soup, gruel, mush, or baked cakes, acorns were once daily sustenance for the first Americans to inhabit this landscape. A good part of their lives was spent harvesting, processing, and storing acorns. One historical source claims that the starving pilgrims at Plymouth stole baskets of roasted acorns, buried by their native neighbors for later use, thereby cheating death (and their native neighbors) for yet another day. Imagine, all that good, solid, sturdy, natural food, just lying around in the woods, for the taking.

Botanists say there are as many as six hundred different oaks in the world, with ninety different species native to the United States. Oaks divide themselves into the red oak group. Our lovely American oaks include the Arkansas oak, the Chapman oak, the Lacey oak of Central Texas and Northeastern Mexico, the chinkapin, the chestnut, the overcup, the swamp white oak, the turkey oak, the bear oak (a.k.a. scrub oak), the Oglethorpe, the blackjack, the Shumard, the Nuttall, the “live” evergreen oaks, and the most abundant oak in my neck of the woods: the northern red oak.

I am foolishly proud to say that this oak is the most important and widespread of the northern oaks. It likes sandy, loamy soils. It is prized for flooring, millwork, and furniture. The name of the red oak comes from the color of its autumn leaves — often a deep wine-red or orange at the peak of foliage as we call it in the North Woods. Quercus rubra grows well in cold climates. Its pests are numerous, including the gypsy moth. It is in the beech family, and a close relative of the American chestnut.

To modern biologists, the oak is a keystone species, meaning that it has a disproportionately large impact, relative to its abundance in any given woodland environment, on the health of the ecosystem of which it is a part. Like the keystone in a stone arch, if the oak fails, the entire arch collapses.

When I wander in the forest in the winter, on skis or snowshoes, following rabbit and deer tracks, for amusement I attempt to identify the trees by their bark alone. I often cheat, however, and look upward instead. In this way, I can always tell the oaks from the maples and ash — unlike the others, the oaks cling to their dark brown leaves, even through the most turbulent of storms and snowfall.

Under “lifestyle” in one of my reference books (The Book of Forest and Thicket), I learn that “any oak with pointed, bristle-tipped leaf lobes belongs to the red oak group,” and that all trees in this group produce acorns that take two years to mature. White oak group leaves, on the other hand, lack these telltale bristles, and their fruits mature in one year. Oak tree flowers, which I seem to have been oblivious to all these years, come in both male and female varieties. The male flowers hang in “slender, dangling catkins”; the greenish female flowers are “solitary and inconspicuous,” growing out of the axils of new spring leaves. The male flowers dangle near the crown of the tree, the female flowers below. Wind carries what needs to be carried from the one to the other. 

Just as acorns are food for the body, they are also food for the human imagination. Oak leaves, acorns, the oak tree itself, have long been symbols of power, steadfastness, honor, aspiration. They are, as American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson would say, “natural facts” that are “symbols of particular spiritual facts.”

For strength, we look to the oak. Oaks are strong. Their wood is beautiful, hefty, and dense. Oak makes the finest furniture, the hottest fires. When my partner and I prepare our three cords of firewood for the winter, we appreciate that our woodcutter includes plenty of oak in the pile of logs he cuts from our woodlot and leaves for us to buck and split. The oak logs, with their deeply grained bark, are always the heaviest to hoist onto the bed of the log splitter. When the iron spear of the splitter first cracks the log in half, the long, dense, golden wood grain is unmistakable. In the fireplace in winter, nothing warms like a stack of oak logs burning down to all-night coals.

For fortitude and patience, we look to the oak. “The mighty oak from the little acorn grows” is a saying meant to prod everyone, from lazy children to lackluster management teams, into thinking big about the future. 

For manliness and courage, we look to the oak. The corona civica, a crown made of oak leaves, was the second highest military decoration awarded to citizens of the Roman Republic. In our own day, oak leaves still decorate military uniforms and the song “Heart of Oak” is still the official parade march of the British

Royal Navy, which, in days of yore, went to war in ships made of oak, like the Vikings before them.

For perseverance and longevity we look to the oak. In lists of the world’s oldest trees, oaks abound; one list has South Carolina’s Angel Oak in the midst of its second millennium. Oaks have character; among the ten most famous trees of the world is the Emancipation Oak, a ninety-eight-foot in diameter southern live oak, still flourishing on the campus of Virginia’s Hampton University. Tradition has it that a group of freed slaves first were read the Emancipation Proclamation beneath the branches of this oak.

Clearly we’re amazed by oaks; over centuries the tree and its little nut have planted themselves firmly in our collective consciousness. As the sonorous voices of the authors of the Textbook of Dendrology put it, “The sturdy qualities and appearance of many of the oaks, together with their longevity in comparison with other hardwoods, have made them from very ancient times the objects of admiration and worship among the early peopleof the world.”

Early people, ancient times: the Druids; the “oak knowers.” Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder writes that Druids climbed to the tops of oak trees dressed in white robes and harvested the mistletoe growing there, using it to create a potion to encouragefertility. The ancient Greeks gave their god of sky and thunder, Zeus, the fiercest natural symbols they could imagine: the thunderbolt, the eagle, the bull — and the oak. When Saint Boniface converted the Germanic tribes to Christianity in the eighth century, he first cut down the revered tree at the heart of their sacred grove — an oak so large and powerful the pagans called it Thor’s Oak. The fallen tree was milled and used to build a church. A people defeated by the felling of a tree.

Rambles in our eighty-acre woods frequently bring me across stands of oak, the ground beneath the trees strewn with hand-sized oak leaves and green and brown acorns, the moist soil carrying the prints of deer and turkey. In these oak groves my partner and I find not only autumn’s acorns, but in the summer delicious black trumpet mushrooms, their fleshy fluted dark horns blossoming up from the forest floor. Maybe it’s just me, but often I want to eat the things I love — small children, baby chicks, newborn goats, my lovers. There is a desire to consume these objects of admiration and desire, to gobble them up, take them in, fuse them with myself. Acorns have always looked to me like food. Good enough to eat! Woodland candy. A perfect shape and size to pop into your mouth like a gumball.

An experiment in my formative years proved that freshly foraged acorns are edible but mouth-puckering bitter. More recently, one crisp autumn afternoon, I learned how to turn them into agreeable food, thanks to a friend who runs a local living school with his wife and young children in a nearby town. As his toddler son slurped a bowl of acorn mush, we got to work.

First, dry the nuts in the sun or roast them in a warm oven. Next, pile them in a deep bucket and pound open the shells with a homemade wooden smasher. Separate the nuts from the shells by filling the bucket with water and scooping out the shells that float to the top. Rinse the nutmeats in the cold running water of a stream for two days. Dry them again. Then grind the nutmeats into fragrant dark flour.

On my next visit, we mixed the acorn flour with buckwheat flour, salt, sugar, and water, formed little patties, then fried them in fragrant bear fat on the woodstove. The “cookies” were dense and slightly bitter, but their color was particularly appealing — dark as dirt.

Emerson believed that matter mattered, that we are grounded in the real things of nature, that these things give birth to language, that language creates meaning, and that meaning gives shape to human life. The acorn is matter. It is one of those still-solid objects that fills our world, that reminds us that we are made first of dirt, of air, of water, of sunlight, of stone. In each acorn lies the infinite rejuvenation of everything, even time. In the acorn lies the promise of another oak, another deer, another turkey, another squirrel, even possibly, if you eat acorns, another human.

For me, the acorn cookies were a rare treat, but for this imaginative family they are — along with acorn porridge — a daily source of nourishment. I suppose you could say that my friends are made of acorn, made of oak. And because I have eaten acorn cookies too, so am I. 

 

 

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