Flung across the landscape by the rising winds of autumn, acorns bounce and tumble toward their destiny, the sound of their fall exploding into the air like riffs of small arms fire or the percussive chatter of firecrackers. If you happen to be standing near a car when the first gust strikes and an acorn-laden oak decides to let her seed-crop fly, the noise created by the collision of nature’s irresistable force and a human’s immovable object is astounding. If you open the car’s door, slide across the seat and close the door behind you, the amplified sound is deafening, the storm of green and brown pellets less destructive than hail but no less impressive.
I experienced my first acorn storm in the Texas hill country, an area of valleys and ridges threaded through with oak. Live oak is the area’s signature tree, but red, pin, lacey, and bur also root in its soil and history. Like the sudden swell of redbud in spring, the astonishment of the prickly pear’s extravagant yellow blossoms and the turning of Virginia creeper as it climbs toward true red, every country event can be an adventure – unpredictable, unique and unexpected – and the acorn storms are no exception.
I’d been told about acorn falls from my first days of hill country porch-sitting. Some folks talked about the Great Fall of ’78 the way northerners refer to particularly memorable blizzards. While it’s easy to know by sight if the crop is good, there’s no way to predict the beginning of their fall. Despite my eager curiosity, there was nothing I could do but wait - through one year, then two, then three - never knowing when I finally would experience acorns as they were meant to be experienced, in a cacophony of sound clanging like a dinner bell for every woodland creature within earshot.
When it happened, it was remarkable and slightly unnerving. Long after midnight, the first acorn fell from the oak overhanging the cabin, hitting the tin roof like a gunshot. Roused from sleep to full, heart-pounding attentiveness I watched shadows prowl, wrapping their fingers around the window frames like stealthy intruders. The gust of wind responsible for separating seed from tree had set the outside lantern swaying and given the shadows life.
As the wind laid and the lantern ceased its swinging, the shadows settled back into the darkness. Certain at last that neither man nor beast had come to claim my life, I lay back myself, and just was drifting into sleep when “POINGGG!” Another acorn fell against the tin and scrabbled down the roof. As the wind began her insistent rise, branches bent and bowed as other acorns fell, and then more, until the night was filled with their strange percussive rhythms and the metallic overtones of their sound against the roof.
Today, crunching my way through the shiny brown litter that drifts against the curbs, I grow nostalgic for those cabin nights and the autumn days I spent gathering acorns for the world’s most pampered squirrel. Squirrels can survive and even thrive with commercial feeds, but my Mr. Squirrel was discriminating, with an educated palate. He preferred slices of sweet potato, fresh dandelion greens and blossoms, fresh-pulled grasses, native pecans and, of course – acorns.
Nothin’ says lovin’ like a freezer filled with bags of acorns, and nothin’ says “flat-out crazy” like a woman roaming beneath the oaks, filling plastic bags with nature’s bounty. Though he was only a baby and not ready for acorns his first autumn of life, the next year he had acorns galore. Unfortunately, his surrogate mother hadn’t yet become squirrely enough to gather as she should, and there was a brief period of time between the end of the acorns and the beginning of the dandelions when my friend was unhappy. After that, I’d learned my lesson, and three days of gathering could keep him through the winter.
Quite apart from their ability to entertain country visitors or please an eipcurean squirrel, acorns are interesting. They come in assorted sizes and colors, and sport a whole variety of rakish caps. Practically speaking, they’re a critical part of the food chain. Just as my squirrel doted on them, deer, mice, rabbits, foxes, raccoons, turkey and quail, jays, woodpeckers and water-fowl enjoy them as well.
Crop size varies from year to year, partly because of differences in the production cycle of various oaks. The perfect combination of sunshine and rain can produce bumper crops that raise tin-roofed sleepers straight out of bed, but crops can be diminished, too, by disease, drought, and freezing temperatures.
Most publications from county agents, universities and arborists note the wide variation in acorn production from year to year, and almost always include a caveat against attempting to draw other, “more speculative” conclusions from the number of acorns. When they do, they’re going up against centuries of folk wisdom. For many people, acorns are predictive. I grew up with grandparents who firmly believed an abundance of acorns was a sign of a harsh winter to come. Years later, a friend who’d grown up in Nebraska shared her bit of weather wisdom from the plains: “Busy squirrels, blizzards swirl”. It was accepted wisdom in her town, and remains widely accepted around the country.
In a slightly different vein and despite scientific protest, many believe that in a drought cycle oaks produce more acorns, not fewer, as a way of ensuring the trees’ survival. Here in Texas, after a summer of especially severe drought, I’m hearing the theory offered up again by folks who believe our bumper crop is a last gasp from water-deprived trees. Through a summer of drought the oaks set their minds on survival, creating, nurturing and finally shedding huge numbers of acorns to drift against the curbs and cover the ground – potential trees, tiny bits of life-yet-to-be ready to lie fallow, and wait, and dream of the sunlight and rain that will bring them into being.
I thought about those acorns at my overflowing mailbox last week. The holiday catalogues had begun arriving. As they piled up in great drifts and heaps of glossy, enticing paper, I realized some were old favorites I expected to receive: LL Bean, Vermont Country Store, American Spoon Foods. A few reminded me of years I’d looked for special gifts: Bissinger, Orvis, Whiteflower Farm. But most of them I’d never seen and certainly never had ordered from, catalogues like Monticello, Acacia, Bits and Pieces, and in a bit of delicious irony, Acorn.
As the stack grew higher, I became curious and made a count. In only four days I’d received received 57 catalogues, far more than ever before. Looking at them, I felt slightly queasy. Meant only to lure and entice shoppers with their glittering baubles and luxurious goods, they seemed to be an unintended sign of something quite different: retail desperation. In a diseased and drought-sticken economy, with the threat of frozen spending on the horizon, merchants across the country are beginning to take on the appearance of slightly desperate oaks, trying to ensure their survival by raining down catalogues like acorns around our feet.
Certainly we aren’t dependent upon catalogue retailers for our survival in the same way that squirrels and deer depend on fallen acorns. And yet, just as in the woodland world, our connections are close, and the health of any is dependent upon the health of all. As I watch small businesses close half a nation away, as I watch the decimation of entire cities, I hear the rumors and whispers beginning even in my own still relatively stable state. An owner sells a boat here, a person quits a club there. A friend gives up her gym membership, a family decides against lighted christmas decorations for their home. A house stays on the market too long. A young person’s college cuts her curriculum. A single mother’s job is ”downsized”. In the silence, each fact drops with a thud as we sit up, startled and anxious, wondering about the sound and trying to interpret its meaning.
In Washington, of course, things are neither so grim nor so fraught with anxiety for the senators and staff, lobbyists and representatives who make it their business to shape the life of a nation. As autumn deepens and the cycles of life begin to turn again, as the winds of desolation rise and the clatter and clamor of failing businesses and falling hopes ripple across the land, they seem content to live life as it always has been lived. Perhaps, I think, it may be that the sturdiness of their office walls and the splendor of their chambers shield them from the sounds we hear.
But autumn has come to America, and the acorns are falling.