Along the one lane country roads in our county, the traveler encounters an occasional roadside tree, all by itself at the edge of the endless fields of corn and soybeans. The casual passerby may see nothing unusual about the trees but those of us who have lived here almost as long as these trees have, think of them as quite remarkable. They stand as monuments commemorating the passing agrarian life we cherish.
These trees are hickories, already bearing when I was born seventy some years ago. To understand why they are precious, visualize this landscape when these trees first sprouted at least a hundred years ago. Much of this land was originally forested, and was still in the process of being cleared. All through the 20th century, more trees vanished every year. By the time I worked in the fields, there were still a few sentinels of the old forest dotting the grain fields and pastures. They were left there mostly for shade. In those days farmers spent a lot of time in the blazing sun, not in tractor cabs, and all of you who have felt the July sun bearing mercilessly down on you know what a pleasure it is to be able to rest a bit in the shade. Worth losing a little bit of corn for. A few trees in the pastures were spared for the same reason— shade for the livestock.
One by one, these silent sentinels from the past were cut down or died. It was not much of a bother to dodge a field tree with two-row equipment, but when corn planters grew to the 12-row, 20-row and 30-row size, dodging a tree could mean that many crooked rows or double- planted rows, two things no corn farmer can abide.
Finally, today, only the lonely hickories at the edges of the fields along the roads remain (see photo). They are bothersome to farmers too, and to understand why they remain, one must know a bit about hickories. Rarely do you find two of them exactly alike in the woods. They do not come true to seed. Two next to each other can have quite different nuts in size, shape, thickness of shell, and ease of nutmeat extraction. Only a few specimens have really good nuts for fast and easy cracking. So when the forests were cleared away, farmers deliberately left the best hickories, since the nutmeats were highly prized for table use back when people could not or would not buy nuts in stores. Invariably, the old trees that still stand along the roads have been spared for a hundred years because they bear the choicest nuts.
Farmers steeped in the old culture know this. Even though they may not themselves gather the nuts anymore, they remember how Momma and Grandmother treasured them. They cannot quite bring themselves to cut the trees down. They continue to honor their ancestors and the culture that bore them.
Every year nut-lovers who know the secret of these trees stop along the road to gather the nuts. They are always older people. They mostly live in town now, retired, but they remember the rural life of their youth. For them, for all us who love the taste of hickory nuts, gathering them has become a kind of ritual. We spend fall evenings cracking and picking out the nutmeats for baked goods that we give for Christmas presents to younger generations too busy to know the pleasure of a hickory nut pie.
I have planted nuts from the lonely hickories on my land in the hope of keeping them going until another human generation comes along that might appreciate them again. Some of these young trees have started to bear now— it generally takes about twelve years from sprouting. Since they don’t come true from seed, mine produce nice nuts but not quite as choice as those from the parent trees. At least so far. But many of mine have not come into bearing yet.
As the lonely hickories slowly die off, few mourn their passage because the mourners are also dying off. But I have hope. Our neighbor, right across the road, has an ancient hickory in his yard along the road that produces excellent nuts. One of my young trees comes from a nut from his tree. As I passed his house last week, I saw a wonderful sight. A group of young people were gathering the nuts. Perhaps I do not need to mourn. Perhaps a hundred years from now, people will still be gathering hickory nuts— in what was once my yard.