I am a walnut farmer. Perhaps this part of my life is better described as involuntary walnut farmer. And as fall begins to loom each year I am faced with a dilemma.
When my family and I moved into our current home some twenty-four years ago we had a wide assortment of trees in the yard. Some were beautiful and desirable (like the large sugar maple next to the driveway) while others were less so (like the sweet gums that dropped their little spiked ping pong ball-sized seeds everywhere). There were three, however, that I was delighted about – the black walnut trees.
In my mind I forsaw an annual supply of fresh-picked walnuts. I would become the fresh walnut connection of all my family and friends, as the aroma of sweet baked goods full of tasty, crunchy walnuts wafted from the windows. Yes, I had lucked into a virtually limitless supply of home-grown walnuts and I was going to take full advantage.
That first year I was more than a little excited about them as I watched them take shape in the branches of my trees. But then late summer came. That was when green walnut husks began to drop into the grass . I had a little excitement about the idea of harvesting the nuts. However, with a busy career and two toddlers at home I did not take the time to do anything with them for the first few years. So I raked them up, bagged them, and threw them out with the leaves.
At that time there was also the ugliest apple tree in the United States in my yard, which was in the habit of dropping worm-filled apples into the grass so that yellow jackets could have a convenient home base from which to menace me as I tried to cut grass in that part of the lawn. I considered planting some celery so that I could pick an entire Waldorf salad each week before cutting the grass but thought better of it. The apple tree finally came down (with the help of the itinerant who offered to cut it and haul it away.)
There were a few times when I could keep my waning enthusiasm up and I would begin to harvest some walnuts. First I would search the ground for those not too far gone in the decomposition process. The pungent plum-sized green husks were easy to spot in the grass and there were plenty to grab.
After gathering a good bag full I would shuck the husks from the nut shell. I have read that settlers used those husks to make a brown dye that was quite colorfast. It certainly worked on my hands until I wised up and started using rubber gloves. And my, but whatever those little worms were, they loved those husks. I guess not all of the nuts picked from the ground were as fresh as I thought. Nature’s little agents of the biodegradeable were at work. Yuck.
I then laid the nuts out on a tray in the screened porch in order to let them dry safe from the marauding squirrels. Where, that first year, they sat until spring after I got too busy to take them to the next step in the processing – the shelling. So out went that batch.
The next year I got serious. That year I got the kids involved – what a great life-lesson in nature’s bounty, a delicious treat free for the taking right in our own yard. The gathering, shucking and drying were done in earnest and soon I was ready for the final step.
Do you know how hard black walnut shells are? Or how hard squirrel teeth must be in order to get through them? A hammer seemed to be the tool of choice, at least according to my research. So there I sat in the driveway bashing those ping pong ball-sized nut shells until they broke open.
Once cracked my bag of walnuts came in to the kitchen table where the digging commenced. When I was a kid my mother kept a bowl of English Walnuts during the holidays, along with the little nutcracker and nutpick. The thin brittle shells cracked open easily and the nut meat came out in large, sweet pieces. My black walnuts turned out to be nothing like this. It was not long before the kids lost interest and wandered off to other pursuits. But I stuck at it.
The meat of the nuts seemed fused to the shells with some kind of adhesive that would make a late night TV pitchman wealthy. Each small piece was tossed into a bowl as I dug away. I wondered if this was how my dental hygenist felt when I came in for those twice a year visits.
After hours of picking (with very little grinning involved) I had a small Ziplock sandwich bag full of fresh black walnuts. Which would have been a more exciting thing if I had actually liked them. Black walnuts, it turns out, have a tremendously strong flavor which I did not find terribly alluring. Which is odd, given my taste for strong flavors in my coffee or in my beer. But these stupid nuts overpowered everything they went into. My Mrs. baked them into a cake. Which was a delicious cake, or would have been but for the overpowering walnuts.
I have tried black walnut ice cream and black walnuts flavors of other baked goods and I have to confess that I am just not a fan.
The icing on the (black walnut) cake came one day not long after as I walked through my local Wal-Mart store on an errand for something or other. What did I find? A plastic bag of black walnuts. I could not decide what was less deflating – that this bag at Wal-Mart (which could be had for zero effort) was twice as large as the little Ziplock I had filled. Or that the bag cost 99 cents.
It was then that I decided that I was finished with walnut farming. The nuts still grow. They still fall. They still decompose in the grass and threaten to twist my ankle every time I step on one just right. But I no longer gather them, choosing instead to leave them to the squirrels and chipmunks. This symbiotic relationship works out well except when the squirrels occasionally find interesting places to store their stash of walnuts in one of my cars.
So I guess, after some further reflection, I do not face a dilemma at all. I may be an involuntary walnut farmer, but have accepted the fact that I am an exceedingly bad one. The nuts grow, they fall, and they feed the squirrels, and I don’t have to do a darned thing with them. It feels a little wasteful, but the squirrels would probably disagree.