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Time On My Hands

Some lessons in a nutshell.

January 1, 2024 :: New Year's Day :: Pleasant Surprises

While walking with my wife in a favorite woodland, I found some hickory nuts on the ground. The first thing I did was try to identify which kind of hickory they belonged to. There are five or six species of hickories around us, but I can't quickly ID all of them by sight except for the Shagbark hickory, for obvious reasons.

Hickory nuts are not true nuts after all.

The horticulturist in me had to give the nuts a name, so I looked up into the tall tree they had likely fallen from. Maybe the bark and leaves would give me the clues I needed. Nope. I made a couple snapshots of both and I'd look them up later. But the nuts may be my best key to the answer.

I photographed them and tossed them to the ground with the other fallen nuts around the broad tree trunk. This forest is a nature preserve, so visitors are asked not to take any plants or creatures home with them. These nuts could be the next meal for a squirrel, a chipmunk, a blue jay or a woodpecker.

As soon as they landed, I regretted not looking at them longer. So I gathered a couple more and rolled them around in my hand. Their design was a study in how a fruit's form follows its function.

It starts when a hickory flower called a catkin is wind pollinated. You'd recognize the long, thin, dangling clusters of tiny male and female flowers like those of birches and alders. The ripening fruit is covered by a thick, tough, protective green husk. As it dries on the tree, the bony, segmented husk splits to reveal the "nut" which is really a fleshy pit.

That's because a hickory's fruit is not a true nut. It's a drupe with a pit like a cherry, peach or olive except the hickory's fleshy cover is inedible by humans. Some species produce delicious "nuts" -- notably the Shagbark, Shellbark and Mockernut hickories. Native Americans taught the British colonists how to make meal and milk from the nutritious ground-up nutmeats.

As I examined the fruits in my hand and wondered how they would taste, I was struck by a memory of what the modern theologian Herb Brokering* told me about apples.

As he bit into a crisp McIntosh I gave him, he told me the fruit was a timeline. He pointed to the bottom of the apple where the flower had been and called it the past. He bit again and called the flesh the present. Then he bit deeper to reveal the core's seeds and called them the future. He said we need to celebrate them all, but the present is the most enjoyable.

As I step into the new year, I'll try to remind myself of that thought. I can't deny the past and I won't disregard the future. But I can decide to enjoy the present and celebrate it in some way every day.

The timeline of the fruits in my hand wasn't as obvious as the apple's. But they did help me discover later that they belonged to an old-growth Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis). It came by that name honestly. Not even a hungry squirrel will "celebrate" its fruit.

This journal entry has elements of what psychologists call "free association" and "stream of consciousness." I'll call it lessons in a nutshell.

*Herb Brokering was a Lutheran pastor, author, lyricist, hymn writer, speaker and workshop leader. I shared my apples with him on an autumn weekend retreat he led.

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