Dislodged by autumn’s rising winds, acorns have begun bouncing and tumbling across the landscape, 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 the oaks release their seed-crop, the racket is astounding. If you’re sheltering beneath a tin roof, the sound amplifies and becomes 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 swell of redbuds in spring, the extravagant yellow blooms of prickly pear, the Virginia creeper climbing toward autumn’s true red: all delight the eyes, but the oak can surprise the ears.
I first heard of ‘acorn storms’ 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 to flow about lean years and fat, hunger and starvation. As the tales grew more extravagant, 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.”
In truth, acorn storms remain as unpredictable as blizzards. Even when the crop is good, there’s no sure way to know when they’ll fall, so there’s nothing to do but wait until the acorns’ great, clacking fall sounds the dinner bell for a multitude of woodland creatures.
My own first experience came just after midnight in a cabin outside Kerrville. A single acorn falling on the tin roof from the oak overhanging the cabin sounded like a gunshot. Roused from sleep to full, heart-pounding attention, I watched prowling shadows wrap their fingers around the window frames, stealthy and intrusive. The same gust of wind that separated the seed from its tree set the outside lantern swaying, giving life to the shadows, but as the wind laid and the lantern grew still, the moving shadows settled back into darkness, and the night grew still.
Convinced at last that neither man nor beast had come to claim my life, I settled back myself and began drifting into sleep. Then, another acorn fell and scrabbled down the roof, followed by a second. As the wind crossed the ridge and began swirling into the valley, branches bent and bowed as a torrent of acorns fell, filling the night with strange, percussive rhythms and the sharp, metallic clatter of their tumble down the roof. It was, I told friends later, a perfect storm.
Apart from their ability to compel the attention of inexperienced city folk, acorns are interesting. They come in assorted sizes and colors, and sport a variety of rakish caps. Smooth, small acorns from live oaks differ considerably from those of the Bur oak, a tree whose large acorn wears a furry, vaguely Russian-looking cap.
Regardless of size, all 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 also enjoy them: not only the wild turkey, jay, and woodpecker you might expect, but also water birds like the egrets.
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, while live oaks produce extraordinary numbers of acorns every four to ten years. During so-called ‘mast years,’ walking beneath the trees can be like walking on ball bearings.
Publications from county agents, universities, and arborists note this wide variation in yearly acorn production. Most also include a caveat against attempting to draw other, more speculative conclusions from the number of acorns produced. ‘Speculative conclusions’ is a polite term for folk wisdom which believes in the predictive power of acorns. My own grandparents were certain an abundance of acorns signals a harsh winter to come, and a friend who grew up in Nebraska shared this bit of weather wisdom from the plains: Busy squirrels, blizzards swirl.
Beyond natural cycles, the perfect combination of sunshine and rain can produce a bumper crop of acorns, just as the crop can be diminished by disease, drought, or 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 droughts, someone always suggests that a bumper crop of acorns is 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: huddled beneath their leaves, dreaming of the sunlight and rain that will transform their lives.
As it turns out, acorns also function as a handy metaphor for certain seasonal realities.
When my mail carrier mutters about the burden of delivering catalogs in the weeks before Christmas, I sympathize. I expect to receive a few old favorites — LL Bean, Vermont Country Store, American Spoon Foods — and a few still arrive to remind me of years when I sought special gifts — Orvis, Moonstruck, Whiteflower Farm. But somewhat oddly, this year’s catalogs are filling up the mailbox on a nearly daily basis. Most are from companies I’ve never heard of and with whom I’ve never placed an order: companies with names like Monticello, Acacia, Bits and Pieces and, in a bit of delicious coincidence, Lumber Liquidators.
As the mail carrier handed me the latest batch of glossy enticements, she caught my expression and said, “Nuts, isn’t it?” Indeed, it is. So many catalogs make me slightly uneasy. Designed and distributed to entice shoppers into purchases running the gamut from glittering baubles to simple trash, they seem an unintended sign of retail desperation.
In a diseased and drought-stricken economy, with the threat of frozen spending on the horizon, merchants across the country could be mistaken for slightly desperate oaks, attempting to ensure their survival by raining down catalogs like acorns around our feet.
As small businesses and restaurants close in my neighborhood; as cities board up against violence and looting, I hear the rumors and whispers beginning to circulate. An owner sells a boat here; a person quits a club there. A friend gives up her gym membership. A neighbor decides against lighted outdoor decorations for Christmas. A single mother’s job is eliminated; a family reduces their income in order to homeschool a child. In the silence, each fact drops with a sharp, disconcerting sound; we look up, startled and anxious, wondering about its source 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. In cities and states, murmured platitudes and demands for obedience apply to the many, but not to the few. As autumn deepens, as the winds of desolation rise and the clatter and clamor of failing businesses and falling hopes echo across the land, they somehow manage to live in their usual ways.
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. We can only hope that some will take root, and flourish.