They are part of the percussion section of October's orchestra here in this corner of my block, and they are the snare drums. In a heavy rain storm or on a windy day, they report with their crack-crack-CRACKS so often I fear for my head as I walk to my bike in the back yard. It is how I know my neighbors' cars are arriving, the crun-crun-crun-crunchhhhh-split-crunK of walnut shells and meat, splattered, unrecognizable, over and among gravel. The bass of the apples and the bongo of the pine cones fall less frequently, but still: there is no doubt among the animal kingdom that the feast is upon us.
In past years, I've stood one-legged at my kitchen sink, watching the squirrels industriously darting back and forth along the fence's rim, bringing their co-op share of the walnut tree's bounty to whatever storage spot they've reserved in my front yard. If the drumroll hadn't warned me it was time to gather walnuts, this would have. But in past years, I've watched the squirrels dart with longing, and then bought my walnuts, shelled, by the one-pound bag, at the farmer's market. It has not been from any sense of great personal wealth; on the contrary, I have felt poor, in time, in knowledge, in space.
This year was ripe for a change. Liberated by my time in June and July picking green walnuts for nocino, when I first saw the squirrel dart past my window, nut in hand, I took a bucket outside and offered my seven-year-old a penny a nut. That first day, he made $1.10, and I picked up twice what he did; the second picking, he made $2.32. He won't pick up those with black muck still clinging to their shells, and I'm patient enough to rub it off with my fingers, a nearby leaf, or against pavement with my shoe (which, yes, stains one's skin, but I have no need for lily white digits), so I gather more than he does once more.
Today he was busy in a fantasy game involving leaping off hills of dirt with a large stick, so I picked walnuts myself, and they were everywhere, so plentiful I was in mourning, waste everywhere. The neighbors had not picked up their share, not the next-door neighbors whose tree this was, nor the apartment dwellers whose cars were subject to herald by these underfoot delicacies. My back ached as the sun set, and I stopped just shy of my bucket's limit, five pounds of nuts. I would have had to pay at least $3.50 had Everett picked these.
Inside, in my kitchen, I selected three dozen now-dried walnuts from the stainless steel rolling shelves where I'd left them to cure, a little more crowded than a single layer, less than the recommendation I'd seen somewhere of "no more than three walnuts deep." They'd been there not quite two weeks -- three separate sources say "two or three weeks" -- but my downside was tiny (harder to crack, is all). Standing on one foot, I inserted my walnuts into the garage sale nutcracker and Monroe stood next to me, hungrily eating the sweet-bitter meats as I removed the papery bits.
A pound of walnuts, dry in their shells, yielded four ounces of meat (even accounting for snacking and a few imperfect nuts). I had plans: a conserve, with quinces and dark sweet honey from the farmer's market. Into my saucier they went, to toss over medium-high heat as they released their fragrance, I tasted and tasted and thought, I am rich! Rich in everything that matters. With my knife I chopped them and poured into the quince puree and watched, waited, stirred, expected, discovered.
It is said that we must greatly change our world, turn millions of acres into arable farm land by magic and technology, if we are to feed the growing population. But I wonder: is there a way to eat differently, change our lives, embrace the richness around us, and feed ourselves with what's already here? Everywhere, as I run, as I ride, I dodge walnuts and edible chestnuts and acorns, on school grounds and city property and in parking strips and in front yards, piled into heaps for pickup and take-away, and I think, poverty! It saps me, this hungriness, this dereliction, this malfeasance. And it is not just nuts, it is apples and pears and plums and persimmons and figs and grapes dripping, drooping, fragrant, out of reach over an overgrown back fence.
And I stir my quince-walnut-honey conserve, considering the limits of my new richness, greedy for more, more, more time to save the food, everywhere.