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Love and Threat

In the sub-arctic, where I spent most of my adult life, we don't grow nuts. Except the human kind. An old joke calls Fairbanks "the world's largest open-air insane asylum." It's not funny when you consider the staggering rates of domestic violence, suicide and addiction. But relatively-less-troubled Alaskans are charming in their eccentricities and obsessions. I think of my friend Jane who, as an underpaid freelance writer, decided to buy a gold dredge because she heard someone was thinking of starting the darned thing up again; she now owns a huge broken-down gold dredge (the size of a three-story apartment building) where she holds poetry festivals (what else? dere's gold in dem dere words). Or Barbara, a slam-poet-cum-lay-minister who one day up and founded an international artists' religious order. Hey! What good is living on the frontier if you can't be a little nuts there?

I have also known a fair number of nuts of the kind that come with assemble-it-yourself furniture. And I have a large piece of original needlepoint, dating to the early 1970s when I first discovered the goddess, showing Egypt's sky-goddess Nut, bent over the earth's sphere, her blue body flaming with rainbows. I am not unacquainted with nuts. But non-human, non-hardware, non-goddess nuts: those I have known only as grocery story items, as plastic-wrapped packages of walnuts and pecans, hazelnuts and chestnuts. Until this season, I've never known nuts in their natural state, falling like rain from trees that look decorated with gaudy baubles for a holiday of harvest.

The harvest season ends with Samhain, the holiday of life-in-death, the "witches' thanksgiving" for earth's great bounty. What an astonishing gift the world gives us in the weeks leading up to Samhain. Our garden and woodlands probably produce more food in summer, but it doesn't amaze me as fall does. With the growing season about to end, nature gives a last big push and produces: pumpkin patches! Tons of winter squash! A gazillion melons! Another flush of basil! Apples, apples, apples, apples, more apples! All summer I freeze and can berries and beans, corn and tomatoes. I keep up pretty well, then suddenly the pace accelerates and I fall hopelessly behind. Right now three sacks of apples are sitting in the garage. I really do plan to make applesauce; I've just run short of time.

As though the picking and preparing and preserving weren't already frenzied enough, this was the week the nuts came down. In the years since I found myself on forest-ringed old-pasture land in Wisconsin, the trees haven't been producing many nuts, probably because of the extended drought. Last year, burr-oak acorns were exceedingly scarce. (Some stressed-out trees super-seeded, though, as did a Siberian elm that produced about forty thousand descendents last year, seedlings I'm still pulling up.) Hickories and butternuts, too, have been as scarce as sanity in Fairbanks in February.

The enormous hickory at the bottom of the hill, which local legend says was a popular fall destination site a hundred years ago, had nary a nut last year. This year, by contrast, has been sensational. The drought continues, so perhaps the trees are thinking it's time to invest in species-survival behavior. Whatever the cause, I've just witnessed what a big-nut year means.

Near sunset a few days ago, we clambered down the hill, canvas bags in hand, hoping it was time to begin harvesting. Indeed it was: The ground was ankle-deep with nuts. I sat down and, scarcely moving, soon had gathered five pounds. As I popped the four-part shells apart to reveal the inner nut, the tree rained down more nuts on my head. I sat there, laughing giddily, picking as fast as I could as the sunset striped the sky red and gold.

That day's delirious picking was nothing to the next day in the butternut grove. Above the upper garden, butternuts sweep down the steep hillside, their big compound leaves making lovely dappled shade that black raspberries love. The last few years haven't been great for these trees; not only the stress of drought, but the fact that they produce erratically, meant it has been awhile since the last big butternut year.

But this fall, the path is dangerous with chartreuse golf-balls, slick enough to send you tumbling, thick enough to make picking easy. We filled four bags in less than twenty minutes — all from one tree. What a perfect image of nature's abundance: the remaining yellow leaves rustling as they fell to earth, to roots covered by a brilliant green ring of nuts piled one atop the other. It could not have been a more perfect autumn day. The sky was a robins'-egg blue, the few clouds brilliant white, the stalks on the raspberries a wintry mauve. It was the kind of day you dream of, then remember the rest of your life.

Having just discovered the giddy joy of butternut harvest, I was sobered to learn that these forces of abundance are endangered. A human-introduced fungus named Sirococcus clavigigenti-juglandacearum (rough translation: butternut-killing canker) has already killed 91% of Wisconsin's butternuts. The trees lack natural immunity, nor has any developed; the disease has rampaged across the land. My friend Barbara, the Alaskan slam poet, remembers gathering bags of butternuts throughout her New England childhood, but few remain in her native region. We are lucky to have a healthy stand, but should the canker appear in our area, there would be no way to protect the trees from disease and eventual death.

Mortality makes love painful; everything we love will someday be gone from this earth. When we embrace love, we accept the possibility, even the inevitability, of losing that precious individual, that one who fills us with sometimes exasperated joy. But the possible death of a whole grove — even of a whole species — presents an even stronger challenge to our souls. To love means to protect: to keep loved ones out of harm's way. To love a vulnerable, unprotectable inhabitant of our land makes me feel helpless, frightened. And angry at whoever, carelessly or with malice, introduced a disease that now threatens one of this land's most beautiful and bountiful trees.

But if I cannot guarantee the longevity of our butternut grove, I can use the energy of my fearful anger — for what is emotion but energy? — to fuel action. To discover how I may live more lightly on the land. To remember that every action, even the smallest, has consequences for our fellow earthlings. And to praise the singular beauties of seasons and of species. Our society's greatest insanity is the idea that beauty and pleasure can be bought and sold. Anyone who has been hypnotized into believing that, let her spend just one afternoon in golden autumn light picking bright-green butternuts and laughing madly at autumn's extravagance.

Patricia Monaghan is the author of the new book of poems, Homefront, on the impact of war on children and families of soldiers, which will be published in November by Word Tech Press (www.wordtechcommunications.com).

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  • butternut harvest, images courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.
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