Sunday, October 05, 2008

Tunk-tunk

Two sounds of autumn are unmistakable," says the naturalist Hal Borland, "the hurrying rustle of crisp leaves blown along the street or road by a gusty wind, and the gabble of a flock of migrating geese."

To these one might add the tunk-tunk of acorns falling onto the roof of the house.

The squirrels are up there, playing Tarzan among the branches. And down comes the shower of acorns -- tunk-tunk -- bouncing off the shingles.

The squirrels, it seems, are enjoying a last boisterous fling before gathering the harvest. There's plenty to go around: The gutters are full of acorns and the ground is littered.

According to Indian lore, a rich crop of acorns means we are in for a hard winter. If so, then nature has a generous way of anticipating the rigors of the season. Squirrels stash away acorns in huge numbers as winter reserves, often burying them in the ground and forgetting where they are. The seeds in the nuts are in a perfect position for germinating, protected from the winter freeze by a few inches of soil. In his A Guide to Nature in Winter, Donald Stokes suggests that a considerable number of our northern oaks have grown from forgotten squirrel snacks.

Birds eat acorns too -- ruffed grouse, blue jay, nuthatch, titmouse -- pecking open the shell and gobbling the nut. Wild turkeys gulp down shells and all, dozens in a single meal. Bear, deer, and raccoons, too, depend on acorns in winter. Donald Stokes observes that no other tree provides so much food for so many as do the oaks. Acorns are probably our wildlife's must important sustenance.

Humans eat them too, usually after lots of boiling, but sometimes right off the ground. I've nibbled acorns and found them decidedly unpalatable. Which is why it always surprises me that Henry David Thoreau goes on about them so in his journals. The Concord hermit waxes rhapsodic about the sweet taste of acorns. You would think he was talking about French truffles or Italian chocolates.

It's white oak acorns he's talking about, the least bitter of these bitter-tasting fruits. "To my taste they are quite as good as chestnuts," says Thoreau. "Their sweetness is like the sweetness of bread." Can he possibly be talking about the same acorns I've tasted? He professes to prefer acorns to a slice of imported pineapple. Come off it, Henry, you are trying too hard to be the woodsy epicure.

In an unguarded moment in his journal Thoreau admits that acorns, like wild apples, require an "outdoor appetite." Apparently, when he tried them in the house they were not so pineapple-tasty. Catching himself out of character, he quickly adds, "Is not the outdoor appetite the one to be prayed for?"

Well, I dunno. What about Chinook olives? Here's a recipe to add to your edible wild-food collection. It's from a book called "Wanderings of an Artist" by Paul Kane, published in 1859. Kane spent four years traveling thousands of miles across Canada, recording in his sketchbook the lives and habits of Native Americans. Among the Chinooks he observed the following culinary practice:

"About a bushel of acorns are placed in a hole dug for the purpose close to the entrance of the lodge or hut, covered over with a thin layer of grass, on top of which is laid about half a foot of earth. Every member of the family henceforth regards this hole as the special place of deposit for his urine, which is on no occasion to be diverted from its legitimate receptacle. In this hole the acorns are allowed to remain four or five months before they are considered fit for use...the product is regarded by them as the greatest of all delicacies."

Chinook olives. That's what the whites called this Chinook treat.

Acorns were the staff of life for many Native American tribes. Acorn soup or mush was the main daily food for most native Californians. In our part of the continent a hearty black bread was made from acorn flour, but first the tannic acid had to be leached from the nuts. This usually meant buying the acorns underground for long periods of time or suspending them in running water. During their first bleak winter in Massachusetts the Pilgrims were lucky enough to find baskets of acorns the Indians had buried in the ground. Sometimes when food was scarce the Indians went looking for hoards of acorns buried by animals.

Eating wild plants does not seem to be as popular today as it was some years back when Euell Gibbons taught us how to stalk the wild asparagus and blue-eyed scallop. But for New England's wildlife the search goes on. For the squirrels on the roof, acorns are more than a fashionable snack; they are life or death. In nourishment and abundance, there is no more important wild food.

Thoreau tells us that after an acorn snack he felt like he possessed "the heart and back of oak." Well, maybe. The tunk-tunk of acorns on the roof of the house doesn't whet my appetite. Taking a bite of white oak acorn on a brisk November day may have a certain daring-do charm, but no one wants to live on them, not any more at any rate, and especially not prepared in the Chinook way. The fruits of oaks may please the palettes of squirrels and hermits, but most of us prefer a store-bought steak smothered in tomatoes and onions.

Further Reading

This essay is adapted from Natural Prayers, now out of print. I thought it needed rescue from oblivion when I was hit on the head the other day by a falling acorn.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.