The parking lot where I visit Greg in Schenectady harbors a scurry of squirrels in a garbage-proximal brush pile. I greet them every time I park, attempting interspecies conversation, but their generalized anxiety seems to always prevail over my charming, singsong hellos. Most months, I catch them scavenging in the garbage bins, and Greg has them on camera fleeing with a squirrel-sized pizza slice in hand.
All October however, they’ve been singularly focused on the giant walnut tree shading the lot. Seeing a squirrel with a mouthful of black walnut reliably leaves me awash in a warm kindred feeling. I see them routinely risk their lives crossing the street to patronize trees. Once I found a squirrel slain, mid-street, fresh walnut forever by their side; a snapshot of their pantry stuffing tunnel vision. I can certainly relate, and though during collection time, squirrel raids on my stash can be a bother, the lengths they go to eat those nuts gives me a sense of solidarity with them.
Last year, a man named Joe reached out with the good news he had plentiful black walnuts to share. The walnuts I have cured and stashed from last year populating my baked goods are thanks to Joe and his towering backyard companion. I have always been delighted to make time and space for these quirky nuts, their flavor and nutritive value unparalleled. Yet, this year, the year we now know as the time of great fire, violence, division, quarantine, and uprising---do I still have time and space for the laborious, messy, vigilant task of black walnuts? This moment, when each day there’s pressure to stretch into something bigger than ourselves, to miracle-grow new limbs, hearts, brains, and tongues, just to keep up, I want to put my energy where it counts.
Since I was young I’ve been terrified of this moment, the revelatory, now or never, moment in our shared story, in America’s story but also humanity’s. It’s a high stakes, angsty, doom twilight of a time. Now that we’re here, I am proud to report my compulsions to hoard tools and glass jars while aggressively learning every self-sufficiency skill possible have significantly diminished since first fretting about peak oil and climate chaos back in 2008.
Twelve years later, I define “put my energy where it counts” more dynamically. Lately, it’s meant giving myself permission to be more than my productivity, to tend to my relationships with the same vigor and care as one of my beloved pet projects. I’m working to source my security more diffusely, in the people I know, from our shared history and mutual indebtedness, and a confidence in my abilities to adapt to meet the moment and stay present.
What I physically have seems less important. So this year, I almost said no to more black walnuts. This year, the same kind man, Joe, contacted me. I was struck with old feelings, I wanted the nuts despite having no room to dry or store them. There was also the hesitation of adding one more thing where I had just seemed to reach absolute capacity on my fridge and freezer. And I had to think about squirrel traffic in potential drying spots. Squirrels have an amazing sense of smell. This is how they find their own buried treasure but it’s likely how they’ll find mine too. I’ve longed fantasized about building drying screens, somewhat rodent-proof to accomplish this task anywhere but haven’t gotten around to it.
Despite these concerns, I decided to say yes to these nuts, to keep up my end of the covenant with Joe, who just wanted the nuts off his lawn, and figure it out. I showed up to Joe’s house Sunday, somewhat beleaguered, with many internal questions on what the next right step would be, once I loaded up my car with nuts. They are awfully messy, strong smelling, and flies love laying their eggs in the rotting husks (there were already signs of new life). I needed a plan I didn’t yet have.
After Joe directed me to his collection, he calmly presented breaking news---he had other possibly useful, related equipment to share. See, when Joe went about befriending the black walnut tree in his backyard, he went all in. He purchased a black walnut cracker and constructed drying screens and a contraption for dehulling the nuts. Since his brief escapade with nut harvests, he’s realized he doesn’t actually care for nuts all that much and wanted to pass these tools along. Last year, he gifted me the cracker, which has been quite an upgrade from the sledge hammer I was using before. Then this year, just as I was having my own equipment crisis, he offered up the rest of his.
Awestruck and affirmed for taking a chance on nuts, I accepted his gifts. Like that, my nut problem was solved, well sort of. The thing is, even with the screens Joe bequeathed to me, the volume of nuts will still be more than I can handle alone. Then I thought of the squirrel’s scatter hoarding ways. They don’t have one central cache, they make little piles everywhere. Some of these nut pantries they forget about, which seems a built in benefit for the trees supplying them, the next generation wagered on an over-prepper's forgetfulness or excess.
What if we were to mimic the squirrel way and decentralize our own nuclear stashes? Is this what community investment is? Relinquishing a tight grip over resources, distributing the extra in scattered pockets, we most definitely will lose sight of, hoping they may sprout new nut bearing generations? Between these Goliath trees and their rodent disciples, there’s an adaptive dance of survival, one with abundance at its core, I believe is worth emulating. Joe certainly appears to be under its spell.
So which of my fellow squirrels at heart wants some nuts to process for their pantry? Seriously, please be in touch.
And now, one last ode to summer.
Carly lives and eats from a hilltop in Cummington, Massachsuetts and part time in Schenectady, NY.