Rites of Fall

Seasons in the Blue Ridge country of southwest Virginia march by like a colorful parade, each with its own display of unique beauty and drama. As children, we greeted the seasons with eager anticipation. The seasonal activities we observed became like rituals that we established without realizing it.

Among the rites of fall was the gathering of nuts: chinquapins, chestnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, and walnuts, all of which grew in abundance around the farm and in the woods. The gathering was best on clear, bright sunny afternoons when the changing colors of the leaves reflected gold on the hills and the hint of impending frost hung in the air.

Chinquapins were our favorites. These grew on bushes in small green burs that pricked the fingers. The secret to removing them was the timing. One had to get them after the burs had split, but before the nuts fell out. Most of the time we gathered them from other farmers’ land, with permission, of course. The only time we could find them on our own property was when Dad had purchased a new piece of land and hadn’t cleared it yet. He deplored unproductive land and spent all his spare time cutting “filth,” as he termed it. “Filth” was anything that took up space where crops could be grown or where cattle could be grazed. This term included wild blackberries and low bush blueberries as well as chinquapins.

Chinquapins were fun to gather but they also served a useful function. My teacher, Miss Owen, used them to help us develop our counting skills. She strung them on lengths of thread with a darning needle and attached the lengths to the chalk ledge. Students would take turns counting as far as they could go. One day she stood by me, smiling her approval, as I successfully counted to one hundred for the first time.

We often played games with the small nuts. We especially enjoyed one we called “Jack in the bush.” One player would put some nuts in her fist, hold it out to the other and say, “Jack in the bush!” The other would respond, “Cut him down!” Player number one would ask “How many licks (how many blows with the ax would it take to do the job)?” Then player number two would give her estimate of how many chinquapins were in the extended fist. If the answer was correct, player number two would get the nuts.

Chestnuts were something of a phantom and finding them was a challenge. The native American chestnut tree had at one time been a common sight in the woods and pastures, a giant among the trees. Its wood was almost indestructible. It was widely used for lumber in building, for fence posts and rails, for furniture, for tool handles, for roofing shingles or to fill most other needs for wood products.

It was this tree that Henry Wordsworth Longfellow immortalized in his poem, “The Village Blacksmith.” The poet described a robust, muscular blacksmith who plied his trade “under the spreading chestnut tree.” The poet could not have known just how prophetic he was: the blacksmith and the tree, both apotheoses of strength, were destined to soon become past history. During the 1920s a severe blight ravaged the trees over the entire eastern part of the country. In a few years time, the magnificent tree was virtually obliterated. No known tree survived, but for several years individual trees, stubbornly refusing to give up, would put out green shoots, sometimes as branches on the dying trunk and sometimes as sprouts from the roots. Occasionally these shoots survived long enough to produce a few nuts. Searching them out was easy enough, for even the dead forms stood above the other trees like gray herculean skeletons of past splendor.

The nuts grew in burs like the chinquapin, opening after a frost or two. They were much larger than the chinquapin, resembling the Chinese chestnut we can purchase in supermarkets today. The taste was superior to the modern varieties now produced on trees that have been cultivated to replace the original native tree. I can’t verify this as fact, but it is true in my fond memories of this “King of Nuts!”

Once when I was sick Dad came in from work in the fields with a pocket full of chestnuts he had gathered from a productive sprout. I was lying on the sofa. It was a cool, misty day, and a fire was burning in the stove. Dad sat beside me, peeled chestnuts with his pocket knife and gave them to me.

There were other nuts also, more plentiful and accessible than the chinquapin and chestnut. Hickory nuts were the most plentiful of all and were not pursued with as much vigor. A small relative of the walnut, it has a thick, hard shell difficult to break. The edible part is and hard to get, but the taste is worth the effort. We often gathered the nuts in our lunch boxes on our way home from school.

Occasionally we would find hazel nuts along the road from school or in the meadow by the creek. We had one butternut tree on the farm. It was an old tree, yet productive most years.

Black walnuts grew around the farm. These were the nuts we gathered seriously, the ones used in baking cookies and cakes at Christmas. They were harvested and stored like any other crop. Gathering them was not considered a fun activity but a chore. Could that be because our parents made us do it?

Probably the main value of the nut gathering was the pleasure of being outside in the crisp, golden fall weather, savoring the last sunny days before the cold of winter. I remember one Sunday afternoon when my sister Garnetta and I decided to go searching for chestnuts. Our explorations took us near Aunt Viola’s house. The day was not the best for nut gathering and quick clouds blew in accompanied by a cold, brisk wind.

We stopped in to see Aunt Viola and to warm up a bit before going home. A cheery fire was burning in her kitchen stove. She suggested that a cup of hot tea might hit the spot. We had never had tea. Coffee and tea, according to our health book at school, were to be reserved for grown-ups. “Of milk drink plenty, but not tea or coffee before you are twenty,” the rule said. We thought of that as we watched her take the tea pot from the shelf and make the aromatic brew. She served it with a pumpkin pie she had just taken from oven, much to the delight of two little girls who suddenly felt very grown-up!

November, 1986