I wandered through tall grass in an abandoned pecan grove this afternoon, nearly the shortest day of the year. It was cold in Capay Valley – and raining hard. There were fog tatters in the hills nearby, gray skies pressing low over the trees.
Most of the year pecan trees look like their cousins in the Juglans family, California black walnuts. Same droopy clusters of pointed leaves, same fall coloration of yellow tinged with black. It is only after most of the leaves have fallen that the difference shows up. Then, clusters of green or brown husked pecans can be seen clinging to the ends of bare branches. Black walnuts, meanwhile, have been scattered underneath their trees for months.
Both kinds of nuts are pretty much ignored in my region. The other day as I was stooping to gather pecans, a hungry looking fellow walked by on the road. I wondered if he was a tramp. He stopped to ask what I was gathering and I showed him a pecan. “Oh, is that what they are?” he asked. “I have a big tree in my back yard…I never bothered to pick them up because they take too long to shell.” Then he asked, “How do you know they’re ripe?” I told him when they dropped from the tree. The trick is to get them before ground squirrels find them.
I am an inveterate forager, so I pick them even though it is time-consuming to harvest the tasty nut meats. Pecan crackers help with the chore, and they are fun tools to use. Simple machines, they make use of leverage, which is the real reason I own one. I bought it even before I found pecans to shell, to use in my simple machines classes for second graders. Then the nut allergy scare started and I put that wonderful little machine away – until now!