It’s September. I can hear it now.
Riffle riffle… thud!
The sound of hickory nuts falling through the leafy realms stirs ecstasy in squirrels and the impulse to retreat in bald headed men like me. But I don’t retreat too far. I want my share.
There is a shagbark hickory tree older than I am in the front yard of my mother’s home, where I grew up. Happily, there is also one in my own yard and several more edging the field across the street. Of all the senses that tether me to this world, the September sound of hickory nuts in flight is one of the most durable.
The shagbark hickory is an emblem of durability for me. Its wood is tough, strong, yet pliant, which made it especially popular with early Americans, who fashioned it into tool handles, barrel hoops, and wagon wheels. We also know from that old song “School Days” that “readin’ and writin’ and ‘rithmatic” was “taught to the tune of the hickory stick.”
For a time, baseball bats were made of hickory wood. Babe Ruth used hickory bats. They were more like cudgels than bats. The Bambino’s bats weighed almost three pounds. Ash and, alas, aluminum now protect home plate, but not with the heft or authority of hickory.
Shagbark hickory trees are tall and straight and deeply rooted in New England, traits common to the men in my family line, so I guess there is some basis for the kinship I feel toward them. Their unkempt shagbark, I suppose, also bears some resemblance to my own sartorial look, but I’m working on that.
Hickories are cold hardy. Botanists at the University of Minnesota have calculated the freezing point of the supercooled water in a shagbark hickory tree’s vascular system to be near 35 degrees below zero. Yet its wood burns long and hot in the stove, making it possible for us lesser New Englanders to shore up our own cold hardiness when it begins to flag in the dead of winter.
Beyond all its utilitarian uses, however, the hickory tree’s greatest gift is its nut. No gift was ever more tightly wrapped. Its thick, green, outer husk splits into quartered segments when ripe. Those nuts dropping from the tops of the tallest trees, which can range up to 100 feet tall (the height of Newtown’s flagpole), conveniently jettison the husk on impact, leaving a smooth, hard, nearly white nut, quarter-ridged with a sharp point at each end. More often than not, however, the husk stays on after the fall and must be pried open with fingers.
Getting into a hickory nut requires a hammer, or other heavy blunt object, or a set of squirrel’s teeth. Once the shell is cracked, the real work begins. The delicate nutmeat is tightly entwined in the convoluted cavity of the shell. Extracting it requires a lobster pick and some patience, but that patience will be rewarded with the sweetest, richest nut there is.
Native Americans prized hickory nuts for their sweet fatty oil, and they dried and ground the remainder for use as flour. The hickory gets its name from this food, which the Algonquins called pawcohiccorah.
For most people, hickory nuts remain a rare treat. They are not commercially grown or harvested. It just wouldn’t pay. It takes more than 200 nuts to produce a pound of hickory nutmeats. That’s hours of hammering and picking. You’ve got to really want it to get it, which is why squirrels have the nuts mostly to themselves.
But in our neighborhood, the squirrels have to compete with my wife, Kate, and me. Every September, we put on hats and brave the contempt of sharpshooter arboreal rodents in the hickories. All the high adventure and subsequent whacking and picking makes those nuts taste sweeter than any treat we could buy in the store. Depending on our supply, we eat them well into winter. They’re best on the coldest nights when we can throw the shells on the fire and think of old New England.