The drought in the Northeast this summer has convinced the trees to start changing color a little earlier than usual. Pumpkins glow orange and glorious in the fields and the acorns are ripe. I discovered this with a start on a recent walk. It was a gray day, the sort that makes me sure if I don't bring a rain coat it will pour, and if I do I'll regret it as I grow hot and sweaty. That day, after several long stares out the window at the sky, I'd decided to leave my rain coat at home.
I'd started out the walk a little chilly, an ideal situation to my thinking, since it encourages me to really get moving and not dawdle. About a mile and a half from home the wind started to pick up. By then I had found my stride and the wind was welcome. I was walking through a very wooded section of the local bike path and on the tail end of a wind gust I heard the rain start to slap against the leaves above me. I hadn't gotten wet yet, but it was only a matter of time before the big drops made it through and soaked me. With a grumble of annoyance that I had once again misjudged the weather, my mediocre curse, I moved my iPod to my pocket and decided to just keep walking. Another gust of wind rolled through the tree tops and I was stopped in my tracks. Instead of raindrops, there were acorns falling on all sides of me. As they hit the paved path they bounced, many reaching eye level or higher! It was incredible, like being in a room full of kids playing with super balls, only much quieter. The show was repeated with each gust of wind.
Trees are majestic, sheltering, and strong, but I've never heard them described as cute. That is the very first word that comes to mind when I think of acorns. Like other nuts they have a utilitarian protective shell, but acorns go beyond mere utility, they are dapper. They come complete with caps, protecting a baby-like head of downy fuzz. As a small child I often drew faces on them and played "baby", making little beds for them from moss. I liked trying on different caps to see if they would fit, and stacking the caps by color like the peddler in Caps for Sale. I had a babysitter who painstakingly spit a walnut shell in half and glued in some soft fabric to make a cradle for the acorn babies. I still have it, tucked away for safe keeping.
We had one oak tree in our yard. One year my older brother tried to collect as many acorns as possible before the squirrels took their share, in other words, all of them. My brother had read My Side of the Mountain, the story of Sam, a teen who moves to the Catskills and survives on what he can hunt and forage. After reading about Sam making acorn flour pancakes, my brother had to try it too. He pounded the nut meats between two rocks until he had a lumpy sort of yellowish flour. Then, in true older brother fashion, he told me to taste some. I must have been excited to be involved, because I took a big pinch and started to chew expecting a flavor like the nuts my grandmother put out for Sunday visits. A second later I turned and spat. Our tree was not the mild white oak, whose nuts can be eaten straight. These were bitter like medicine. You'd think I would have stopped being my brother's taste tester after that, but I'll save additional tales of my gullibility for another day.
I saw these beauties during a walk this week. I knew acorns came in a variety of sizes, colors and shapes: long and pointy, stumpy and elliptical, deep walnut brown to sunny apple green, but I'd never seen any with such mottling before. I only noticed them because the sidewalk was so thick with nuts that they were getting caught in my sandals; a definite "woulda missed" moment. The first one I saw was the golden tiger striped one on the right. There were quite a few with this sort of color scheme, a cross between stripes and the flames people paint on cars. Then I spotted the northern lights type coloring of the one on the left. In no time I was on my knees posing the nuts for photos. I didn't give a thought to how odd I must look until I felt a dog's breath on my ear and looked up to see a golden retriever and his smiling owner making their way around me. Oh well, I got the picture and an itch to find more of these colorful nuts.
I have a feeling this is going to be the autumn of the acorn for me. I may try capturing the variety of colors and shapes in a painting. Or there's a acorn bag I've been meaning to make for ages. And of course if acorns look cute in their caps, wouldn't children look even cuter in a knit version? Maybe I'll play squirrel and fill my pockets with all the different varieties I see as I walk. Of course if I do that, there may just be another attempt at cooking with acorns in my future.
I'll let you know how it goes.