by Curt Kovener
(The following is a encore edition from the Curt Comments archive.)
I will tell you up front, this is a nutty story.
To provide you with some background, I enjoy getting outside in the fall when the air is cool & crisp. And gathering persimmons and hickory nuts are a way to enjoy the out of doors and later enjoy the fruits of Mother Nature.
The late Miles Hickerson would often share with me some of his stories: the early Crothersville volunteer fire department, fishing, and gathering hickory nuts.
He told me that while the big tall hickories may grow on the hills and hollows, it is the bottomland hickory that will produce the largest nuts.
Hickories need a lot of water to produce fruit and the hills just don’t have enough moisture. I have seen first hand the thimble sized fruit on our wilderness hills and gasp in awe at the duck egg sized nuts produced in the bottom woodlands.
Before he passed on, Miles told me some of his favorite hickory haunts.
This past week, after a couple of mornings of heavy dew and gentle breezes, I had some extra moments so I took a detour on returning home and just happened to end up in a nearby low ground hickory stand.
I passed by several trees with only average size nuts on the ground tempting me to stop. But I was looking for those big ones Miles used to tell me about.
I was in a small woods and could early see farmland or roadway on all sides no matter where you stood. I worked my way over towards the edge and just before breaking out into a still unharvested field, I found the motherload. And it was a virgin motherload because no one had been there to claim any of the old mother hickory’s offspring.
These weren’t large cue ball size nuts. These were jumbo, two make a handful, thin hulled variety.
While Miles recommended using the old style beer bottle opened to hull the hickory nuts on site, I find using a Leatherman® tool works better for me. (That’s one of those umptileven tools in one with a pliers, screwdriver, saw, knife, and you name it all in one that folds up into a handy leather pouch you wear on your belt). I really find the multiple-tool-in-one handy for when I’m working in the wilderness and machinery conks out a half mile from the barn and conventional tools.
While this hickory tree was only middlin’ size, it had produced a bounty of nuts to pick up. As I sat about picking up and hulling, many peeled off without any toiled effort.
Mr. Murphy & his law also applies in the woods. That allegory would be, the largest cache of nuts will be found amongst the green briar and dried but still potent poison ivy.
As I busied myself with alternatingly focusing my bifocals for looking for nuts then hulling them and dropping them in my bucket, I could relax and contemplate life. When you sit in front of computer most of the day, getting away by yourself can be considerable therapy.
Sure , I thought about how to use the nutmeat in pies, cookies and just an occasional munching. I also thought about the early Native American hunter-gatherers who had originally inhabited this land before we drove them off and proclaimed it as our own in the name of civilization. And they were doing the same thing I was doing, only for them it was a way of life.
As a combine was busy at work in a field in the distance, I listened to the bluejays as they hopped from oak limb to limb searching for acorns. Drying leaves crunched under my feet as I gleaned for hickory gold. More tree leaves gave up the seasonal ghost and noisily came to earth to add to the camouflage to hide my quarry.
Then it happened.
As I bent over to pick up some more hickory nuts, a stiff breeze suddenly belted the woods and I heard a peppering from the tree tops as gravity took over.
Squirrel hunters know the sound of a cutting squirrel losing a grip on a hickory nut and hearing it brush leaves out of its way before falling with a thud to the ground.
Multiply that times at least twelve. Folks, it sounded like a machine gun. No, an avalanche of hickory nuts had been let loose and it was right over me.
I had seen enough cartoons to know that if I looked up, one would smack me right in the nose so I hunkered down in a squat, used my arms to cover my head, gritted my teeth and waited for the worse.
Mortar shells from enemy fire seemed to land all around me. Thud! Thud! Thud! Some so close that I felt the thud before I actually heard it. I survived the barrage with only a glancing blow to my backside. There is enough padding there that no injury was sustained. Besides, Grandpa always said, “It’s too far from your heart to hurt ya.”
I remained in that head-covered looking like I was taking an outdoor squat for several moments awaiting a second wave of nut bombs. I tried to think of an escape route but greenbriar doesn’t allow for quick movement without pain. But the anticipated second attack never came. and after collecting myself feeling smug that I had fended off the attack I laughed in the face of danger—HA!—and returned to gathering those monster sized nuts.
I harvested nearly a 3 1/2 gallon bucket full in little time and made my way out of the woods to my truck just as it began to get too dark to see additional hickory nuts.
But I believe, as a humanitarian gesture for other gatherer-hunters, I shall return to that woods and post a sign near that aggressive hickory: Don’t worry about this tree’s bark but watch out for its bite.