Monday, February 20, 2012


IN BIRDLAND THE LACK OF A REAL WINTER IS BEGINNING TO BE A DISAPPOINTMENT. The warm, clear days are beautiful, sure, but I can't seem to dress for the weather, and I think we only had a fire in the wood stove once. I'm not sure it will be cold enough again to fire it up, and now it seems like a big waste of iron and space. I've been mulling over the difference between “putting things up for winter,” and hoarding. In the fall I collected baskets full of walnuts that fell from the tree in my yard, and bit by bit, have been shelling them. It's a lot of work—husking off the hulls (and dying my fingers a deep brown) and then cracking off the hard wooden shells. The outer husks come in various degrees of freshness, from a bright green (which still dyes my fingers dark) with a sharp, crisp scent—to a damp deep brown smelling of soil and rotting off the inner shell, leaving brown-black, sandy, wet crumbs all over my hands. Sometimes the hulls have dried to a firm, papery texture, and many of these I can slice with my nut-picker and open the halves with my thumbs, but often I have to just put them in the nutcracker, dried husk and all.
It's slow work, but I enjoy it. I generally watch a movie, or, better yet, listen to the radio while I'm picking the nuts—you have to keep a close watch, because even a small shard of shell in a bite of walnut is hard on the teeth. I freeze the nut meats, because they go rancid so quickly. Right now I have a half gallon in a jar in the deep freeze, and a smaller plastic container in the fridge freezer. I'm proud of my work, but over the holidays I got busy with other projects and put the nuts aside for awhile. When I finally returned to them, I brought up a half bushel up from the basement, where I had stored them. These were now dried, grey pods, and I set to work.

Imagine my dismay when the first one, then ten, then all but a few opened to nuts. The shells cracked easily, but the meats had dried out to thin mahogany colored bits of paper. The essence of the nut—the oil, the flesh, the flavor—was gone, leaving only a paper cut out to remind us that the nut was there. All my hoarding was wasted.  

 I'd been using the nutshells to mulch my path up to the front door. Walnut trees give off toxins that kill other plants, and I'm not sure whether the toxins are in the shells and husks. I didn't want to add these to my regular compost for the garden, so I decided to use them where I don't want plants to grow. The walnut gravel makes a nice, brown texture on my path, but you can't walk on it barefoot. Nutshells are sharp! I sadly took my bowl of shells out and spilled them on the path, thinking how the nuts I have in the freezer will have to last me until fall, and, oh, how I love to bake with walnuts.

In the yard I still had a small pile of nuts left over after I had filled my two bushel baskets, but they had been outside all winter, such as the winter was this year. I didn't have much hope, but a few days later went out and collected them. These had mostly lost their hulls, and appeared damp. I thought I'd give it a try, and pulled out my heavy-duty nutcracker. Remember my dismay at the ruined nuts? Reverse it! These were fine. Fresh and plump and aromatic and sweet. I have learned that sharing with the squirrels in my yard is better than hoarding, at least when it comes to walnuts.

Store in Beauty; Share in Peace; Blessed Be.

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