Flung across the landscape by autumn’s rising winds, acorns bounce and tumble, the sound of their fall exploding into the air like the percussive chatter of firecrackers.
If you’re standing near a car when the first gust strikes and an acorn-laden oak lets fly her seed-crop, the racket is astounding. If you’re sheltering beneath a tin roof, the amplified sound is deafening. A storm of ripened acorns may be less destructive than hail, but it’s no less impressive.
I experienced my first “acorn storm” in the Texas hill country, an area of valleys and ridges threaded through with several varieties of oak. The sudden swell of redbud in spring, the extravagant yellow blooms of prickly pear, the color-turn of Virginia creeper climbing toward true red may delight the eye, but the oak has its own capacity to surprise the inexperienced or unprepared.
I first heard the term on a hill country porch. We’d been rocking and rail-sitting, drinking sweet tea and watching the deer when someone mentioned the acorn crop. Stories began flowing about lean years and fat, hunger and starvation. As the tales and details piled up, I began to laugh. “You might as well be talking snow,” I said. “When you call it The Great Acorn Storm of ’78, you sound like a bunch of Yankees sitting around the woodstove, recalling a particularly memorable blizzard.”
The difference, of course, is that acorn storms remain more unpredictable than blizzards. Even when the crop is good, there’s no sure way to know when they’ll fall. Despite my curiosity about the phenomenon, there was nothing to do but wait – through one autumn, then two, then three – never knowing if I’d have the opportunity to experience the full glory of acorns – their great, clacking fall sounding the dinner bell for every woodland creature within earshot.
When it happened, it was just after midnight. A first acorn fell from the oak overhanging the cabin, hitting the tin roof like a gunshot. Roused from sleep to full, heart-pounding attention, I watched the prowling shadows wrap their fingers around the window frames, stealthy and intrusive. The same gust of wind that had separated a seed from its tree also set the outside lantern swaying, giving life to the shadows. As the wind laid and the lantern grew still, the shadows settled back into darkness and the night grew silent.
Convincing myself with some effort that neither man nor beast had come to claim my life, I settled back and began drifting into sleep. Then another acorn fell against the tin and scrabbled down the roof, followed by a second. As the wind crossed the ridge and began swirling down into the valley, branches bent and bowed. Other acorns fell, and then more, until the night was filled with their strange, percussive rhythms and the sharp, metallic clatter of their tumble down the roof. It was, I liked to tell my friends later, a perfect storm.
Quite apart from their ability to terrify people new to tin roofs, acorns are interesting. They come in assorted sizes and colors and sport a whole variety of rakish caps. The smooth, small acorns of the live oak are remarkably different from those of the Bur, an oak whose acorn wears a furry, vaguely Russian-looking cap and is the largest American acorn.
Practically speaking, acorns are a critical part of the food chain. Squirrels and deer dote on them, as do mice, rabbits, foxes, and raccoons. A variety of birds enjoy them as well – not only the wild turkey, jay, and woodpecker you might expect, but also water birds like the egret.
The crop size varies from year to year, partly because of differences in the production cycle of different species. Bur oak production peaks every five to seven years, and I’m sure this was the year in Kansas. Walking beneath the trees there was like walking on ball bearings, so thick were the layers of acorns.
Most publications from county agents, universities, and arborists note this wide variation in acorn production from year to year. Most also include a caveat against attempting to draw other, more speculative conclusions from the number of acorns produced.
“Speculative conclusions” probably refers to centuries of folk wisdom. For many people, acorns are predictive. My own grandparents firmly believed an abundance of acorns signaled a harsh winter to come. A friend who grew up in Nebraska shared a bit of weather wisdom from the plains – Busy squirrel, blizzards swirl – and woolly bear caterpillars have been serving as weather consultants for years.
Beyond natural cycles, the perfect combination of sunshine and rain can produce bumper crops of acorns capable of raising tin-roofed sleepers straight out of bed, just as the crop can be diminished by disease, drought, and freezing temperatures.
On the other hand, many believe that diseased or drought-stricken oaks produce more acorns, not fewer, as a way of ensuring the species’ survival. During the worst of our Texas drought I heard the theory offered up again and again by people convinced our bumper crop was a last gasp from water-deprived trees.
Arborists seem divided, but there is something both poignant and hopeful in the thought of thirsty, over-heated oaks setting their sights on survival by creating, nurturing and finally shedding huge numbers of acorns. Potential trees, tiny bits of green-yet-to-be, the acorns cover the ground and huddle beneath their leaves, dreaming of the sunlight and rain that will transform their lives.
When I found my mail carrier running late a few days ago, acorns came to mind in a different way.
He reached into my box to hand me what already had been sorted, and pulled out a number of holiday catalogs. That came as no surprise, since I’ve been overrun by them this year. Some old favorites I expect to receive – LL Bean, Vermont Country Store, American Spoon Foods. A few remind me of years I looked for special gifts – Orvis, Moonstruck, Whiteflower Farm. But most I’ve never seen and certainly never have placed orders with – catalogs with names like Monticello, Acacia, Bits and Pieces and, in a bit of delicious serendipity, Acorn.
Seeing my expression as he handed me the catalogs, the carrier said, “Nuts, isn’t it?” Indeed it is. I’ve received at least fifty catalogs this year and they’ve made me slightly uneasy. Designed and distributed to entice shoppers into purchases running the gamut from glittering baubles and luxurious goods to simple trash, they seem to be an unintended sign of something quite different – retail desperation.
In a diseased and drought-stricken 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, attempting to ensure their survival by raining down catalogs like acorns around our feet.
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 to circulate even in my own 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 outdoor decorations for Christmas. A friend stops going to Starbucks. 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, 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 again to turn, as the winds of desolation rise and the clatter and clamor of failing businesses and falling hopes echo across the land, they seem content to live in their usual ways.
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.