In Love of Walnuts:
By David Wright
I was once young, an eight-year old, and by any explanation that was some time ago, in this case embarrassingly close to sixty-five years. This time span is not child’s play and for reasons, not totally apparent, I can’t account for the speed which has consumed that span. Fortunately, there is still a certain lucidity in my mind so that it is possible to recall some things from that time, not only recall them but, most interestingly, to have sensations and vivid memories pertaining to smell. The sensation, I suspect, is only part of it because with the odor of certain items or situations comes images that, while somewhat ethereal, are still, to this old mind meaningful and rich.
We returned here to our home ground 12 years ago. That first fall on our return to Wisconsin, and really, every year since, we have almost without effort, managed to round up at least some walnuts. Initially, I recall simply finding one in glorious repose under a tree. It was unmolested by the resident squirrels as it sat their half buried in the duff like a lost golf ball. Almost instinctively, I lifted the light green orb to my nose. I knew hidden there was a crisp pungent odor of the earth. I knew there were memories, maybe ones lost from living in the west all those years. Like every person, there are childhood experiences associated with distant odors, be it faint hint of a mother’s perfume, or secret smell associated with Port Orford Cedar, the wood used to make our own arrows or the smell of fall as the western Chamisa and sunflowers bloomed on the August prairie of Colorado.
In this case, it was the Black Walnut. Like flying birds rattling through my brain, I was taken back in Sauk County there on the Wisconsin River. In the distant haze of magical memory, I recalled, almost seeing our band of foragers flopping from the car in disarray, gunny bag in hand, heading for some known Walnut tree where waited the green nuts ready for grabbing.
In early October, we would get packed in the old ’36 Chevrolet, in a fashion probably not much different than the family dog, who in glee would hang from the window, jowls flopping in the breeze with spittle running wild, and head for the Baraboo Hills. While we two kids might have been slugging it out in the back just out of the reach of the old man, I would not be surprised if we two ratty-assed kids were also face to the wind, head out the window yelling and drooling. It was adventure time.
Duward’s Glenn rings a bell as does Parfrey’s Glenn and from there our disheveled troupe would scrounge around looking for all sorts of things including walnuts—but I still recall distant stories of watching for Timber Rattlers—and hearing the old man excitedly carry on about how he almost put his hand on one—to that we paid attention.
The trip was a family thing and a chance to touch and smell all things wild. I didn’t know then my father was born in New York and raised in Chicago, so in looking back I’m not sure how he managed to become so engaged in this country life. Maybe it was the quiet presence of my mother who had been raised in a more rural setting in northern Illinois. What is now very clear is they had a genuine love for the countryside, the uninhabited, the quiet settings of the forest and fields.
I know at the age of maybe eight, I was already fascinated by the newts, frogs, butterflies and wild growing food my parents were showing us. The smell of the walnut was impossible to miss. Just the slightest scratch of the hull and from it came this rich, earthy odor only found in that one species.
I don’t doubt, knowing our families later history, that it was there we learned to throw things at each other—like fat walnuts. It wouldn’t even surprise me if the my father started it. Later in life there were many childish, rowdy fights with acorns, walnut and apples accompanied by pock-mark wounds, and a few tears all of which that were met with little sympathy. It was the old man, I’m sure.
So therein lies the memory that still drifts around in my head. Scratch the newly fallen walnut and there in front of me is a soft spot, a vision of a family picnic and a sack of walnuts—maybe the burn of being hit by a 65 mph fast (ball) nut from my lousy brother. It is all just good.
Of course, this is not the only wafting odor that sets off the winds of memory, but it is a pleasant one, and one I could wish on any one.
In the last few years I have taken it farther than just momentarily dwelling on the gift of smell but also harvesting local walnuts, hulling them, slowly picking the meats out and then in the great glee of an easily impressed child, introducing them into pancakes and cookies. When the first cookies were made, I noticed the taste of the nuts also rang one of those tiny bells in my brain, not the ones damaged by a few too many concussions, but silver bells of a warm kitchen and still-steaming cookies.
The walnut holds a dear place in my life and due to their abundance around here, we are now able to enjoy every aspect of them almost every year—and that is, without throwing them at aging, still-mouthy brothers—not that we wouldn’t try.