MANN TALK: Harvesting and Harking at Year's End

by Perry Mann
Perry Mann
Perry Mann
A few days at the end of the year were atypical. Although the nights were frosty, the daytime temperatures reached the sixties by early afternoon. On one of those days I doffed my obligations and went to the farm with the singular intention of listening to the muteness of winter and sitting on my porch looking at the pause in the glories of the place.

Observing nature in December is reminiscent of sitting in a country church in midweek when all the mice have gone to town. Its glories are there but nothing moves, nothing sounds, nothing seems animate.  All is suspended and all outdoors is sitting or standing museum-like waiting for the word from Spring to wake and follow her.  

I walked in the pasture toward higher ground and passed a walnut tree, not just an ordinary walnut tree but one with extraordinary girth and procreative propensity, and one that some suburbanite would pay dearly to have cut and crafted into a chest or other fancy furnishing.  

Underneath this tree the ground was a carpet of black walnuts. The tree has produced nuts for my family for years but this year with family gone or scattered, I had neglected to harvest any. But the proclivity to store and barn inculcated by those who learned lessons from squirrels and from the penalties of profligacy prevailed. I aborted the walk and went to the house for bucket and gloves and took up the chore of nut -harvesting, an occupation in harmony with nature’s and Jehovah’s admonishment.  

I was in shirt sleeves, the sun was way to the south but benignly warm on my back and the sky was the blue of blues, that azure that infinity and eternity only can color the heavens. Looking east I could see forever: rolling land, pastures, farmhouse roofs, barns with cattle standing and waiting, ridges lined with trees like troops in ranks, and finally the horizon and beyond it that blue that entices one to follow it to the end of time. Amid such glories and soundlessness and under the sun’s caresses, I began to squirrel away walnuts. I would roughly roll a batch of them under foot and then pick them up, remove any remaining husk and toss the gems into a bucket.  In half an hour, I had nearly filled a five-gallon container. And there were tens of gallons remaining. Nature is profligate particularly when the expenditure is to assure the perpetuity of her species. She pines not over the abortion of a thousand walnuts but rejoices over the one that germinates and becomes a tree.

  At the base of the tree were the remains of a squirrel’s meals over a while. There was a pile of shells, diamond-hard, but cut open and toothed clean of nut-meat. Here was a squirrel’s Eden: Ten thousand nuts and within reach a tall tree with apartments. The only risk was to be caught by a dog or other predator when too far from the apartments to get there before the predator got there. But more often than not the squirrel was at the walnut tree and home before the dog awoke. To be early is the strategy of the not so strong to best the strong in the struggle.

  One who has tried to crack a black walnut, knows the blows necessary to open one up. So when I once inadvertently dug up a walnut that had sprouted, I was amazed by what I discovered. There was the nut open at the seam and from that opening there was a root seeking earth and a sprout seeking the sun. I remembered Robert Burn’s poem in which the ploughman turned up a mouse’s nest and caused its best laid plans to go awry.  I with reverence replaced the nut and its hopes in the earth with the wish that my interruption had not been fatal.

  Leaving where I had harvested I felt wealthier. I had a bucket of nuts to store until some  afternoon when the sun had returned. Then, at a spot warmed by it and with hammer and stone, I could imitate the squirrel and collect a cup of kernels for cookies or cakes and while collecting feast as well.  I felt healthier. I could feel while bending and squatting a virtuous sensation in my legs and my back at work, not at some gym faking work, but at work at something with a needed and natural goal: harvesting against the barrenness of winter. I remembered Leo Tolstoy’s first condition of human happiness: Physical work under the sun and sky to fulfill a need.  

I left the scene of the great tree and  its progeny at its feet with my bucket of its offspring, walked to the house and took a seat on the porch to hark to the muteness of winter and to catalogue, as it were, its museum pieces. The big maple undressed was stark in gray bark. Its leafless limbs etching the blue of always. The pine still needled stood tall and forlorn: its mourning-dove nests empty. Not even a bluejay appeared, or a mockingbird; and the barn swallows and bluebirds were just memories recalled to bring in mind some life to the place.  

By now shadows were long and the chill of the season was seeping in. So I called it a day on the farm and with my profits returned to my obligations. How happy I am that fate has seen fit to provide me with a pasture, walnut tree and the will and time to harvest and hark. The urban man is a slave to the city and a dependent of those in the hinterland who bring in the sheaves and edify themselves learning nature’s lessons and listening to her silence.

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Perry Earl Mann was born on the 12th day of March 1921, in a cottage on Russell St. in Charleston, West Virginia, to a young couple who had left the country for the city after World War I. He lived there during the "Roaring Twenties," that time when men gambled recklessly on the market and women cut their hair, shortened their skirts and took to cigarettes.
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