While talking with my brother-in-law this weekend, I learned that he is heavily involved in removing acorns from his lawn. He’s not one to exaggerate. He’s always been a person to calculate his statements with some accuracy given his background in mechanical engineering. So he literally added up the number of pounds of acorns that he raked up and bagged as lawn waste. “I took 450 pounds of acorns out of my lawn,” he said. So that symbolizes a microcosm of the bigger dynamic at work here in Illinois. It’s a big year for nuts around here.
For cyclists like me, that means danger lurks by the side of the road. Acorns tend to fall en masse (in fact, it’s called ‘mast’) thus leaving road shoulders covered in long swaths of half-inch variety nuts. A road cyclist barreling along at 20 mph can be thrown for a loop if the rider enters the Nut Zone and catches a few too many under those skinny tires.
The same holds true for walnuts. Those can be hazardous for both cyclists and runners. A triathlon friend was incapacitated last year with a broken ankle after stepping on a large walnut during a training run. He broke a bone in his ankle from the force of how far that walnut twisted the ankle joint. Ouch.
So walnuts are not a nut case to be trifled with. The exterior husk is further laced with a stinky musk that stains the road. When that decomposes, the inner nut shell is ribbed with deep striations. And when that breaks down the shell splits in two, leaving cases that resemble black pig noses.
It’s an elaborate system evolved over many millennia. Squirrels steal away with walnuts to extricate the fine meat within. Some will bury them in the ground to be consumed later. A few get forgotten along the way, and that gives the walnut a fair chance to germinate and grow. Evolution has built some twisty-turny, symbiotic relationships when it comes to the “life goes on” scenario. Squirrels get food from the walnut tree, but in turn they help walnuts get a lease up on life. It’s a fair trade.
But some years nuts are so numerous the bulk of them go to waste. You’ll find them scattered all over the bike paths and roads. They become a source of genuine danger.
While riding my bike on a section of the Virgil Gilman Trail to get out of the wind after 25 miles of fighting it in open country, I rode through a deep woods section of forest preserve. I kept my eyes on the trail for potentially offensive walnuts and other fall tree debris. The shade was so deep in places the trail was not really visible through my dark cycling sunglasses. To make matters worse, the husks of walnuts tend to go black after a few days of exposure to rain, sun or crunching tires.
So there was plenty of reason to be on cautious. And where the sun did penetrate the trees, the beams were so bright and sudden and clear that my eyes could hardly adjust quickly enough to discern what kind of nut might be lurking on the exposed asphalt.
Fortunately I noticed a large green walnut just in time to swerve the bike and avoid getting flipped off the trail. Now granted, should I have slowed down enough to avoid the challenge? Of course. But something the human spirit always likes to live on the edge, meet the challenge and take a risk. It’s called being stupid.
Barefoot and painful
In college a few of us decided to run barefoot in an early season cross country meet. That worked fine on the lower campus where the intramural fields were composed of cleanly mown grass and there were no trees around.
Then we raced up the dirt trail that led to upper campus and found, to our horror, that the oak trees covering the Quad had shed thousands of acorns.
Running barefoot on paths covered with acorns is one of the most painful experiences you can imagine. Our coach was not pleased that some of us had shed our shoes. But knowing that was the case, most of us sucked up the pain and managed to come within a few seconds of our previous times. That came at a price, because it hurt like hell. After that, the barefoot running experiments were over.
Compared to their gratuitous presence in fall, the growth of acorns and walnuts is a background process marked mostly by the calls of cicadas and the occasional summer lyricism of the wood pewee and red-eyed vireo. All summer long acorns and walnuts grow silently in their respective trees.
While still green and firmly affixed to the branches, they look as appetizing as fresh apples. And so, as children, we used to pluck green acorns from the trees and pop off their caps. Then we’d sit on the ground and rub them on rough cement until both sides were worn off. Then we’d poke a hole in the middle and make an acorn ring.
On more than one occasion I gave an acorn ring as gift to a girl I admired next door. She even once returned the favor. Sometimes life is just nuts. Then you grow up and girls favor diamonds over the gift of acorn rings. But which truly has the most value?
The ways of (human) nature
Just over 100 years ago the annual harvest of acorns and other nuts in North America was consumed by a species of bird called the Passenger Pigeon. Those lean and lovely birds were apparently fiercely fast in flight and also numbered in the billions.
“Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”
—Aldo Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” 1947
Because of the enormous numbers of passenger pigeons, they were shot by market gunners who lurked by their roosts and blasted away at the birds. So they came and then they went.
Ultimately there were no more birds left to shoot. They had all been killed by people too selfish, shortsighted and ignorant to realize that human beings really do have an impact on the way nature works.
The number of passenger pigeons had once been so great the branches of trees would break off from the weight of so many birds. But the bounty of that population and the ease by which they could be taken was their downfall. Now the acorns fall and there are no passenger pigeons to consume them.
The last passenger pigeon known to the human race died forlorn, largely ignored and quite alone in a zoo. The once numerous species had gone extinct. And that was stupid too.
Acorns and life itself
So while the abundance of acorns and walnuts is a indeed a nuisance on our roads, a risk to cyclists and runners alike, I tend to still revel in abundance in many ways.
The reason why trees produce so many nuts is related to the numbers game of life itself. Between the natural destruction that occurs when nuts fall to earth, combined with the impact of so many creatures that feed on nut meats, it is important for trees to basically “breed” like crazy to produce the few nuts that will ultimately germinate. That’s how young trees get a start on life.
Nature is, when you study it closely, a sacrificial instrument to life itself. As human beings, we are no different. The Bible encourages us to “be fruitful and multiply,” but that’s also because we die in droves every day.
We must come to understand that there is more than one way be fruitful in life. It is important to be abundant in spirit in order to share the true bounties of nature. Otherwise we insult the order and significance of creation itself.
We are truly fruitful when we share the infectious joy of being alive to revel in a world that both celebrates and humbles us every single second of existence. Our running and riding experiences are part of that connection process. But a simple walk in the woods may be the best compliment of all to that effect.
Thus what I see a patch of acorns or the black stain of walnuts on a road it serves as a signal to slow down not only for my own safety, but to immerse my mind and spirit in the changing of the seasons. This has happened 61 times in my life. It is important to cherish the memory of those past and build new associations as the years go by.
It is true that the waste and wonder of life itself is all around us. It is ours to keep a sense of wonder about it all, or wind up in a ditch or a rut because we ignore the very thing that warns us of our own mortality.
Life is just nuts sometimes. And that’s a good thing.