I discovered my first black walnut tree as an eight-year-old, playing at the school playground with my friend on a weekend. We were swinging on the swings and chatting about something or another.
Bordering our school was a small area we referred to as “The woods”, which were not actually woods at all, just small areas of trees left untouched when the homes in our section were built, and although tiny in comparison to what one might think of as woods, these small groupings of trees were a vast and magical place for the kids who lived in these neighborhoods. We were all told by our parents not to play in the woods for safety reasons, but we snuck in anyway, the allure of the woods was too much and we just couldn’t help ourselves.
As we walked towards home along this fence line, we stumbled upon a bunch of little green balls on the ground, larger than a golf ball, but smaller than a baseball. We could only assume they had fallen from a tree because they sure didn’t grow out of the freshly mowed grass. We glanced up at the tall, rough barked tree to the right and saw it was loaded with these green seed balls. We looked back down at them on the ground, pushing one or two around with our feet trying to figure out what they were when a couple of older boys approached on their bikes heading up to the school and noticed us looking at them. They slowed down, jumped off their bikes and one of the boys told us, “Those are black walnuts”.
“But they’re green not black” my friend replied.
“Yeah, now they are, but they’ll turn black when they get ripe and then you peel the shell off. Then you can break em open.” he said.
As my friend and I took the information in, the boys began to mess around, picking some of the green balls up, tossing them around to each other like baseballs. One kid smashed one down hard against the pavement, another threw a couple into the woods, and it plunked into the creek below. They tired of showing off with the walnuts and they got back on their bikes, continuing up to the playground.
We began to look more closely at the nuts and noticed there were quite a few of these trees gathered next to each other, and now that we knew the green balls were not dropped here from Mars, we each picked one up. They had a rough texture and a very distinctive, almost refreshing, spicy scent. I really liked it and kept inhaling it in deeply. Walnuts from trees, who knew…
Immediately I thought of my dad, huge fan of walnuts…and almonds, cashews and pecans, all kinds of nuts. One of his Christmas gifts one year was a wooden bowl carved out a 3-inch-thick slice of a tree, bark still left on the sides and shellacked. The middle was hollowed out and smoothed, and had little holes drilled to fit a nutcracker and the tiny metal tools for picking out the meat of the nut from the shells. The bowl was only brought out during the holidays and filled with a bag of mixed nuts, and dad would snack on them at night in front of the TV watching his shows. He would crack some open for my little brother and I being that the shells were too hard for us to open ourselves.
Standing over these green, black walnuts on the grass, the wheels in my eight-year-old mind began spinning as I realized the implications of these nuts.
I thought to myself, so all this time, right under our noses, as we sat in this school, there were multitudes of walnuts growing, right on a tree. We would never need to buy our walnuts from the grocery store again, why I could single handedly free my family from the burden of spending money on bags of walnuts at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter! I could provide my dad with all the walnuts he could ever ask for by gathering these up for him. I could collect them every day on my way home from school!
Unable to contain our excitement any longer, my friend and I began gathering up as many of the green balls as we could, creating makeshift baskets with our shirts by pulling the bottom up, holding them in our mouths as we filled the pouch this created. We walked the couple of blocks home, discussing our find all the way, unable to believe our luck at finding this food source right at our school, so proud of the bounty we were about to bestow upon our dads.
The anticipation building within us as we turned up our street, we made it to her house first, said our goodbyes and I watched her scurry up the walkway to her door and go inside. I was a little envious that she got to tell her dad before I got to. I almost ran the rest of the way home.
I arrived at my house, and held my shirt between my teeth again for a moment, so that I could turn the door knob without dropping the nuts, I burst in the front door, shirt stretched, smelling of the nuts, the fabric stained from the nuts rolling around in it, and breathlessly ran into the backroom where Dad was watching TV. I stood in front of him, my face beaming as I tried to catch my breath to explain the absolute miracle of my discovery.
I summoned him to the kitchen table, and he followed me in. Lifting the bottom of my walnut laden shirt, I let the walnuts fall out onto the kitchen table, beaming with pride, looking from strange green balls and then back up to my dad’s face.
His expression revealed that he had no idea what these, odd smelling things were, but that was ok, I would explain! Parent /child roles were reversed, and I was now in the position to tell him something he didn’t know! I regurgitated the information explained to me just minutes earlier by the boys at the school, confidently, as if it were my own, as if I were an expert on the subject.
These were black walnuts, I told him, and yes, they may look different than the walnuts we were used to seeing, however, these were edible nuts. I began explaining in an animated manner, that there were “whole entire trees of them” growing right at my school! Only a few blocks away were all the walnuts we could ever need, an endless supply, and I could get more! I would bring a bag next time…. In fact, I had better get back there today before some other kids figured it out and grabbed them up for their dads!
He picked a green ball up, feeling the strange outer coverings and asked why they looked so different and so much bigger than regular walnut shells, and I explained that this is what walnuts really looked like before they were shelled and put into bags at the “nut factory” and all we needed to do let them ripen and wait until the outer skin turned black. Then we could hit them with a hammer and crack them open and eat them.
I could not understand why he was not as excited as I about this incredulous news. He was also not as thrilled as I was about the magnificent scent of these nuts…I don’t think he really understood that this would save him from the expense of some of our nut purchases. Sure, we might still need to buy the other varieties of nuts but now I had the walnuts covered. Maybe if we looked farther into the woods, we would find other nut trees too, hickory or chestnuts or something like that. I pondered where the other nuts might come from.
At this point, I had delivered the good news and there was nothing else to do but to allow them to ripen like the boys said. Who knew how long that would take?
Dad wouldn’t allow these to ripen in the house so we gathered the nuts up, laid them out on his worktable in our garage, and within in a few weeks, they turned black just as the boys said they would.
We got out the hammer and opened one up (after an intense beating with the hammer). The inner shell was much harder than the shells of the store-bought walnuts. Dad did all the work and even he struggled, in fact, I really don’t know how we opened one at all. We tried to eat a piece of the nut, but it was so pungent, bitter, and horrible, we spat it out in the trash immediately. Something went wrong. Maybe they had ripened to long?
Not up to the challenge of opening another, the rest of them ended up outside on the picnic table in the yard for another day, eventually just disappearing from our yard, stolen by a squirrel who couldn’t believe his luck. (Or dad tossed them in the trash when I was not around).
I learned a lesson that day, a lesson dad already knew…….It is worth every penny to buy your nuts at the grocery store.
The other lesson I learned was the importance to keeping intact, the innocence and excitement of a child’s first discovery, and, allowing them to think they are teaching you something.
A few weeks after this, sitting on the curb with my friend the walnuts came up in our conversation, she told me her dad had thrown the nuts she brought home into the trash that same day.
I am still amazed with the tall black-walnut tree and the nuts these trees drop in the fall, still love their spicy refreshing aroma and I never pass on a chance pick one up, inhale that wonderful smell, and I always carry one home with me in my pocket remembering that day I discovered them.
Dads been gone 27 years, but I have the memory of sharing those black walnuts with him. I have his special nut bowl and I filling it with a bag of mixed nuts at Thanksgiving, a bag of nuts from the shelf at the market.