Letter from Birdland: Trees all they're cracked up to be
Last summer's drought did a number on my walnut tree. Or maybe it was time for it to take a year off.
At any rate, I didn't see any walnuts in it this summer, try as I might to see the bright lemony-green spheres from below. Not one. When fall rolled around, the leaves fell, revealing about nine that my searching eyes missed. This was not enough to make much use of that fancy walnut cracker that I bought last year.
On the other hand, my neighbor's tree put out an abundance. On my drive to work every morning, I could see a growing pile of them stacked against the trunk of the tree by the road.
One day, when I saw a woman in the yard, I stopped to inquire about the walnuts. She kindly invited me to take some, telling me that they pile them there just to get them out of the way. Another neighbor usually asks for some, but there are far more than he can use, so I can share in the bounty.
Twice now, I've stopped on my way to work with my big, stainless steel bread bowl and scooped up the now mushy balls to take home to husk and crack and pick. It's messy work, sure. My hands get stained, and in the winter, my fingernails never come clean.
The hulls are aromatic, and I pull them off first and let them dry a little before I crack them. The dining room table has a perpetual bowl of the deep black/brown nuts waiting to be cracked.
It's methodical work, and that's the kind I like. Keeping my hands busy frees my mind for conversation or thinking. I like to listen to my favorite radio shows when I crack walnuts.
My walnut cracker is a scary contraption. It has a long lever and big springs and heavy gears. It looks like a torture device, and you surely don't want to pinch your fingers in it.
It has two sets of attachments: a large one for walnuts and a smaller one for hickory nuts. First you place the nut and then swing the lever forward until the nut cracks.
With practice, you can learn to feel the squeak of the hard wood giving before the satisfying crack. With practice, you can control the pressure, pulling back just before the shards of shell get embedded into the nut meat. The best crack is when you can pull away the nutshell in five or six pieces, leaving the nut intact so you can extract it by halves. But that happens rarely.
Cracking black walnuts is careful work. One tiny shard of shell can painfully lodge in a molar, and I warn people to eat my baked goods carefully when I've added walnuts.
But I've also learned a few tricks to keep that unhappy surprise to a minimum. I put my cracked nuts into a bowl and then transfer them carefully, a few nuts at a time, to the big plastic container in which I will freeze them. If I give the bowl a shake and then lift the nut meats with my fingers, I always find lots of shards in the crumbs left at the bottom of the bowl.
When I bake, I pour the frozen nuts into a bowl again and pick them out one by one. On the second sifting, I still find shards. I'm always surprised at how many — and grateful to find them with my eyes and fingers, not my teeth.
These walnuts have a dark, papery skin with a lighter brown venation on them. Once in a while, I get a half a walnut and I am struck at how much a walnut half looks like a pair of lungs. The lobes branch off with spidery veins.
And when you think about it, trees are the lungs of the world. They filter the air and actually make oxygen. This is not my original idea. Google "trees are the lungs of the world," and you'll see.
But it is an idea worth meditation as I go about my delicious business of cracking my nuts, yet another gift from the trees.
Harvest beauty; crack open peace; blessed be.
Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in the sunshine and the harvest. You can read more of her writings at http://www.letterfrombirdland.com. Hays can be reached at email@example.com or via snail mail care of this newspaper.