THAT FALL, my first October back in South Carolina, we had a bumper crop of acorns. Every day I heard the staccato rain of nuts hitting the roof, and when I walked the campus where I’d just begun teaching, acorns rolled underfoot. I’d read about acorn bread years before, and it seemed like a good time to try baking some, so I gathered nuts in a grocery bag until I had a good two pounds.
Shelling the nuts took all evening, but I found this strangely addictive. There’s a trick to it — you pinch off the acorn’s round top first, then its pointed end; after snipping through the shell, peel back the shiny brown jacket. When I found worms, I cut them out with a pocketknife. When a taste test proved the nuts were bitter, I boiled them in change after change of water to draw the tannins. I gathered white oak acorns; those from red oaks are more tannic. Squirrels, knowing this, eat white oak acorns out of hand but bury red oak acorns to use later. The soil’s moisture leaches out some of the tannins, so the nuts taste sweeter when the squirrels dig them up — if they remember. And if they don’t? Another oak seedling unfurls its leaves.
The boiling acorns turned the water dark, and rafts of steam rose from the pot. I roasted them on a pizza pan and ground them into meal with a food processor. Who makes acorn bread nowadays? Manna lying on the ground, free for the taking, but it’s a lot of work.
As long as I can remember, acorns have caught my eye. Living pebbles you shine in your palm, tangible promise of new sprouts to come: willow oak streaked with sienna, overcup big as gobstoppers, water oak packed with sunny yellow meat, burr capped with twisty fringe. Once, as a kid, I made an acorn necklace, carving holes in the seeds and stringing them on yarn. But when the crumbs of meal dropped to the ground, I regretted it. They would never become tall trees.
But I am older now, and calloused. If a tree can bear thousands of acorns in a season, as many do, eating a few pounds won’t make much difference. Is this the attitude that wiped out passenger pigeons, once famous for their migration? That name synonymous with “moving about or wandering,” flocks so great they dimmed the sun, nests so plentiful they split boughs; eggs dropped like hailstones. My loaf of acorn bread rose high and cracked in the middle; it tasted chewy, a little nutty, wild harvest on a suburban campus.
I think of other oaks I know, like the mighty Quercus prinus on nearby Table Rock. The crevices in their thick bark, deep enough for my hand to fit inside, mark their great age, as do their thick boles and tremendous height. They’re likely the last few old-growth trees up there, rooted in ground stony and rough; that country used to be chestnut forest before the blight. Now that the chestnuts are gone, you wouldn’t know they’d ever lived, but for the space their dying made.
Migrating flocks of passenger pigeons once left mountains of droppings, dark and rich, fertilizing ground that otherwise would have been too poor to support trees. Some of today’s mature oak stands may have started with the help of pigeon guano, or the seeds the birds dispersed in the 1870s. It’s possible that passenger pigeons gave my ridgeline oaks the boost they needed to survive.
It is good to return to a familiar place and find something sowed with a generous hand. The sun’s energy translated into fat and fiber; I husked, baked, ate it for breakfast with smears of butter. What life I gathered and poured into my own. Even though the acorns had just fallen, some of them were sprouting already when I collected them, tap roots poking from the meat’s pale skin. Looking for cool damp, and tunneling down to find it.