“These gifts should be accepted, not merely with gentleness, but with a certain humble gratitude.” Henry David Thoreau
I love a good harvest. It makes me exceedingly happy.
There is something about harvesting that conjures pastoral images saturated with bright gold, fiery ocher, and warm browns. Full, deep skies spotted with shifting clouds and low moons. A harvest heralds hard work, the kind of work that brings aches in the back and joints, fingers rubbing hands, hands rubbing necks. It compels eat and drink (those gold, ocher, and browns again) in measure. Words, too, abound: plentiful, abundant, ripe, and readiness. For some of us, a harvest has a revelatory nature, unearthing feelings of grace and thankfulness.
I have farming in my blood. No, in my hands—it’s instinctive, like a feeling of home. These hands suffer typing day in and day out, but they long to plunge seeds into soil. Or wrench plants out by the roots, in turn. In cycles.
Now, under these shifting clouds and low moons, it’s time for harvest.
Unfortunately, there is not much I can pull out by the roots or off a vine, not around here. Land is not my own, save a few pots extended to every conceivable corner of available growing space offered in our London flat. These plants, perennials, would be a bit testy were I to traumatize them by compulsively yanking them out come autumn. So I settle on what I can collect instead (collecting is one subculture of harvesting, it implies gathering that which has already been given to us by a tree or a bush).
I collect chestnuts. It makes me thoroughly satisfied and happy. I’ll share the particulars with you, lest you, too, need immediate happiness.
We embark; a sunny day is imperative.
Finding the gleam and shine of these pearly nuts set against otherwise dull spaces, a backdrop of fallen leaves and bracken, is the essence of chestnut collecting.
Bring pockets or a vessel of some sort because you will want to bring the chestnuts home. To touch, to rub, to slip in the bag of someone you love, to terrify spiders, or, should you find yourself in Britain with a mate, play conkers.
I place chestnuts delicately on trash bins, communicating a moment of presence to unsuspecting commuters. I always collect with a sturdy zipped-top, double-compartment purse because chestnuts will want to break free, return to the earth, so to speak. For example, they will want to jump out of your bag and roll all over the floor of the, let’s say, coffee shop that you visit post-collection—perhaps after you ordered that pumpkin spice latte and reach for your wallet to pay, they will seize their chance. Bring a bag with a zip closure.
Plus, there is something wonderfully whimsical about walking around loaded with chestnuts. How delightful!
And finally, remember that nuts, when ready, will be beneath your feet. Do not pull them off the tree. Wear soft-soled shoes. That kind of shoes that passes the language of the earth to eager nerves in your sole. To be barefoot is acceptable, but be wary of the spiky casings. I walk barefoot, carefully, my eyes and feet are in competition.
On finding and selecting the perfect tree.
Chestnut trees are magnificent, some of my favorite deciduous genera. There are many types. European chestnut trees are quite tall and often symmetrical, making them a natural choice of eighteenth-century landscape designers. When they flower, they invade the air with such a heavy pollen it tickles your nose (and has worse effects on one’s throat). American chestnuts, equally beautiful but quite rare now—they suffered a massive blight around the turn of the century, an ecological devastation of epic proportions.
The trees mature at different rates, even in the same fields. Disappointingly (but forgivable), chestnut trees lack foliage; they herald autumn with a rather unattractive brown rust.
Look for the barest tree, its nuts will be most ripe, falling directly (and that is a treat, but watch out!) or having already fallen and are on the ground for you to find.
For you … and the squirrels. You’re competing with squirrels, don’t forget. Scurrilous, impudent creatures, nature’s capitalists, who’d sell their own mother for a promising acorn hedge. If the squirrels got there first, you’ll know—there will be nothing left but bitten, desiccated remains. Move on.
The most beautiful nuts come from horse chestnuts (aesculus), sheathed in spiked, spring-green cases that look deceptively like pompoms. Stomp on them gently to open. If they are ready, they will open easily. Inside the casing is a white, nourishing pith that gives the nut the most beautiful sheen on first view. If you can find them in the shell, try. They are most exquisite when fresh.
Nuts are like humans. Some are flat. Some are round. Some forgettable. Some worthy of poetry. Some prefer the comforts of the shell, others break free before they hit the ground. Perhaps that is why we humans are called “nuts” occasionally. I wonder if chestnuts call each other humans… All humans, and nuts, are beautiful in their own way.
While you harvest, take a moment to appreciate the unique beauty of each one. Roll them in your fingers, feel the smoothness of the material, like wood, but softer, for in soil it must break to grow. Raise it in the light and notice the waves of color, the murky depth, which consumes light and in its shadow, suggests hidden things.
Spend time appreciating the shape, color, and texture in different lights and settings. They will reward you, I promise.
I have armloads of nuts—now what?
Right, excellent day, lots of conkers, lots of luck, now what? Cook them, roast them, obviously, if you found the castanea sativa—tasty flesh awaits your oven, quite simple.
Unfortunately, if like I, you’re drawn to the more beautiful horse chestnuts, they are not edible. I tried to flay and roast them one year (did I mention they aren’t edible?) … What was to be a song of winter turned into the vomit Olympics. The less said about that, the better. So now, after harvesting, I fill various pots and drawers around my house, mixing them with nuts I’ve gathered from Versailles (such old trees) and Tuileries until my husband or my cats find them and they (the nuts) ultimately end up in the compost.
Most of all, I suggest sharing them. That is what harvest is all about, indeed. Community.
Chestnuts make wonderful gifts. Small, smooth, such deep color, and each one unique. Give them to people, hand them out for good luck and slowly let them slip back to the earth, in their own way, awaiting the next stage in their endless cycle of life and death and harvest in between.
What it would have been to have seen the great chestnuts across America before the blight. I’ll never forget reading Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer. With its interwoven stories about Appalachia and change and tradition, it is a beautiful elegiac for these great trees. To read more about the love of collecting, how it feeds the soul and nourishes our whimsical selves, I recommend The Artist as a Collector.
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