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nuts from hell

Someone told me once that if you have a lot of nuts in summer, look out for a bad winter. Nature knows what is to come, so the person said, and so Nature provides for the animals. At the time I thought it was plausible, but now I think the thought must have originated in a suburb somewhere, perhaps where exposure to animals amounts to seeing fattened housecats and the neighbor's mongrel pup and (if conditions are right) an occasional buttered-toast-fed squirrel.

No, Nature is not as considerate as city folks might think. Nature will freeze you in winter without warning, much less give you notice to prepare. In summer and fall, Nature will throw nuts without caring where they land.

By the fall of last year, we had mounds of nuts in Rougemont. Mounds. Enough at least for treeborne wildlife to last through Antarctic winter. But winter was really, really mild. The snow I can remember lasted just barely 'til lunch time, and we didn't have so much as an icicle on branches anywhere.

Winter was nice, but it didn't support a connection between nut quantities and winter climate.

We have lots of nut trees, mainly bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) and white oak (Quercus alba) — at least I think they're white oaks. There seem to be so many varieties of oak. The oaks produce acorns abundantly, and last year they rained down, at points covering a few walkways so thoroughly that acorns completely replaced the gravel surface. The hickory nuts (some call them pee-cans) came shooting down, golf ball size. I stood on the porch out back to watch them hurtle from the heights.

You could not walk across the lawn without feeling as though your soles were rolling over large marbles.

Aaron, my son who is peeved by squirrels, says the squirrels throw the pee-cans at us. He has in recent years come to accept the creatures a little, more out of resignation than choice. But he still believes squirrels conspire to throw nuts, and he'll pick up newly hurled projectiles to examine what he believes are small chew marks in the leather-tough outer covering. (He also says that abundance of nuts indicates more about the quality of spring pollen than the upcoming winter. In that he's probably right.)

I have stood near an outbuilding out back and felt the whiz and the plop of a hickory nut falling nearby. And I've wondered if people are injured by the things. I have been tempted to ask emergency room doctors if there is some accident code that describes "mortal wound by nut" or "knocked unconscious by nut" or "squirrel-thrown nut hematoma." I just know I've never been hit, so either the squirrels have a bad aim, or I've been lucky.

I do know my truck and cars have not been so lucky, though they are bigger targets from on high. We are mindful where we park, especially when the car is new. The area around the garage is the most perilous. The area out front — a large, tree-canopied gravel circle — is safer since it is hickory free but loaded with oak and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). Acorns bounce off of a nice wax finish, and they won't leave a nut dent. Hickory nuts embed themselves in painted steel hoods, roofs, and trunk lids. We park in front, never near the garage far back behind the house where the hickories grow.

Last fall, I shovelled and dumped wheelbarrow loads of acorns and hickory nuts. They ended up dumped in a ditch where underbrush could disguise them until they rotted. Of course, some snuck into leaf piles that ended up in the compost. I was a little concerned about that, since I feared that whatever we would dig out of the compost would be riddled with rock-hard nuts. But this spring I shoveled good black compost and I saw the nut shells crumble. A few stalwart hickory nuts needed raking out, but just a few.

It's now almost July, and the hickories are tossing green nuts to the ground again. I think we'll have fewer this year.

I have no idea what winter will be like.

Mark R. DeLong

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