Down in the southeast corner of the state, among rolling fields of alternating greens and crop-colored golds, lies a piece of land my grandparents and great-grandparents farmed for decades. As children, we would ride on the tractor as it putt-putted down over the hills and into a clearing just preceding a large stretch of woods that wound through a valley hugged by cornfields. Home to deer, rabbits, fox, coyotes, skunk and all manner of other small woodland creatures, it was an amazing place to explore. In the springtime, the creek that threaded through the center of the woods bubbled cold water over a rocky ravine bed. In the summer, we searched (and often found) elusive Jack-in-the-Pulpits and showy Ladyslippers. We held sticks teetering with hotdogs and marshmallows over many bonfires in the clearing, ran through the crunchy brown covering of fallen leaves in autumn, and gathered downed birch branches to peel the papery white bark for creative little projects like toy canoe building. It was home to our first tree house and where we aimed our slingshots and air rifles at rusty old Folgers cans.
In the years that have marched on since my childhood, my trips to the woods have become very rare. We stay busy with the kids, and the drive there is long. However, many of my eight brothers frequent the woods, usually to hunt. Sometimes it’s because they’re sent on a quest from my mom – retrieve some birch branches for Christmas decorating or gather some rocks for the new garden project. Hunting isn’t my hobby and I’m fairly hapless with a chainsaw.
But this year, I decided it was time to return. When I was young, every year in early fall, my grandmother would gather up pails and buckets, pack a picnic lunch and set out with me, and sometimes my brother Jon, to head over the hill and down into the woods. There, we’d carefully squeeze our way through the barbed wire fence dividing the cornfield from the woods. On a forested slope, under the canopy of towering trees, we’d plunk down our pails and set to work gathering up delightful little gifts, fallen from the branches above. Hickory nuts.
The sweet meat encased inside the hickory nut shell found its way into my grandmother’s baking and cooking, and a bowl full of nuts sat on the table, nutcracker nearby, at the ready. Digging the nut meat from the hard casing kept us busy and out of mischief.
This year was to be the year, I decided, that I’d take Ryan and the kids and forage the forest floor for hickory nuts. My brothers assured me the trees still stood, but warned that getting through the overgrowth at the fence line might be tricky. We’d risk it, I decided.
Driving over the hill and arriving at the clearing, I immediately saw what Mark, Tom and Matt had forewarned me about. There was quite a lot of overgrowth. The neat trails I was used to as a kid were long gone. We forged ahead. Jack was a trooper, not afraid to pick his way along the muddy ground. Maggie was a tad more worried about this messy business of marching through cockleburs and milkweed plants. We came to the fence line. “Well. Guess we have to go back now,” Maggie said, pointing out the barbed wire fence. Oh, boy, I thought. My kids have never eased their way through the sharp, rusty wires of an old fence while one sibling pushes one wire down with a booted foot and precariously lifts another wire, creating a perilous opening. They looked at me as if I’d grown a second head when I told them we’d go through the fence. I went first, showing them that, yes, it could be done. The kids were excited to make it through unscathed. Ryan, on the other hand, earned an ugly tear in his jeans for his efforts. Ah, well.
Inside the woods, the kids rustled their way through the forest floor’s covering of dead leaves, heads tipped back looking up at the tall trees overhead.
“What are we looking for?” they wanted to know.
“This.” I said, crouching down and picking up a round object.
“That’s a nut? It looks more like a weird fruit!” Jack decided.
I peeled open the husk and tucked safely inside was a lovely light brown hickory nut. The kids, quiet with wonder and curiosity, studied the nut and the husk pieces, and then set out foraging the surrounding ground for more. Ker-plunk! I’d hear as another nut dropped into the pail. Excited, the kids pawed through leaves and brush looking for more. Ker-plunk! Ker-plunk!
After gathering up a good amount, I led the kids further into the woods, exploring trees, rocks, moss and fungi as we went. Climbing, jumping and balancing their way across downed trees and large rocks, they smiled and laughed as kids should when deeply immersed in nature. I pointed out woodpecker holes in trees, we found deer and coyote tracks, and ate wild blueberries.
“This is so neat, Mom!” Maggie declared. “So, nuts and berries right here to eat! What else can we eat from the woods?”
“My grandpa used to come back here and smoke out wild bees to collect honeycomb. Delicious!”
Both kids stopped in their tracks and turned to me, a halting and panicky look on their faces.
“We’re – we’re not going to do that, are we?” Maggie wanted to know.
I chuckled. My kids don’t fear snakes or alligators, but a picnic comes to a screeching halt if a bee shows up to the party. “No, no bee hive raids any time soon.” Although, now that I think about it… that was very good honey!
As we approach Thanksgiving and fall settles things down in the woodlands and prepares nature for another season of quiet slumber, I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to enjoy Mother Nature and take advantage of the myriad of gifts she has to offer, and even more thankful that I get to share these experiences with my kids.