by Riverdave Owen
January 2016

       The largest trees that lean over and encircle my log cabin by the Eno RIver are oaks and hickories.  They provide a yearly mast of edible nuts that begin to ripen and drop in August and continue through November. By the winter solstice the nuts have sprouted or been buried or eaten by squirrels, deer, insects and worms. It didn't take me too many years of observing this autumn offering of wild food before I was "itchen" to jump in and join them.

       White oak acorns are the most numerous tree nuts in my yard.  After researching a number of recipes I began the process of gathering and preparing these beauties for table consumption.  I "hunted and gathered" 1000 of the largest and blemish free nuts from among the myriad covering the ground.  Sitting at my solid oak dinner table, I took a flat rock and cracked each acorn one by one and then popped of the shell with a flick of my thumbnail.

       Because of the bitter tannin content in white oaks, I boiled for an hour and drained all 1000 acorns three separate times to extract this dark constituent and poured it off.  Next I spread the moist kernels on baking sheets and roasted them in the oven for several hours until they were dry.  Then I crushed them with my flat rock into smaller pieces. The final stage was to mill them in an electric blender producing two quarts of fine brown flour.  Mixing this nut flour with grain flours like corn, rye, millet or sorghum makes a flavorful wild bread or pancake mix.

       After I had worked with acorns for several years I decided to explore hickory nuts.  I placed a bushel basket on my back screened-in porch.  Whenever I went for a autumn walk I would pause under hickory trees and gather nuts for my basket.  But sharp rodent eyes were watching.  One day I walked out to my porch and found a big hole gnawed through the porch screen and my nut basket obviously robbed of much of its contents.  Lesson number one learned ...      
       I started my gathering process over again, this time with my storage basket inside the house.  But since my cabin does not have central heating, the porch door is often left open for fresh air.  I began to find squirrels opening lids in the pantry closet, running across the dinner table and leaving an array of protest "signs" scattered about the house. They were intent on prying into every closet and shelf in the house, often eliminating on counters, chairs and beds.  What was meant to be a foray into understanding the seasonal hickory mast had turned into an unsavory rodent invasion.

       Regrettably I purchased a Have-A-Heart trap and and lured the squirrels in with peanut butter bait.  Over the course of a week I transferred a dozen squirrels seven miles upstream along the Eno River.  Enlightened through experience, the subsequent hickory masting season turned out better results as I placed all my gathered nuts in sealed containers in a closed back room away from my rodent friends.  I allowed the nuts until January to fully ripen.  Then, as a winter meditation practice, I regularly took a coat pocket full of nuts and a metal nut pick down the Eno River.  Seated upon a large rock in the middle of the river, I slowly and deliberately dug out the delicious sweet hickory meat to eat.

       But using a hand pick was a time-consuming process and forced me to consider how I might utilize my hunting and gathering efforts more efficiently. I had long been in awe of large mortar and pestles I had seen used by Amerindians in the Amazon basin of South America.  So making use of my wood stove, I began placing live coals on a large cross-sectional piece of willow oak trunk that I had scavenged after the power company cleared a fallen tree in downtown Durham.  I then employed a bellows foot pump and directed a stream of air onto the coals.  After daily working this project for a month, I had a handsome, fire-hollowed mortar. I chose a slender six foot dead cedar trunk as a pestle.

       I began crushing my hickory nuts one handful at a time. Filling a medium-sized sauce pan, I simmered the crushed hulls and meat together for an hour.  The delicious aroma that filled the log cabin was phenomenal.  I found this hickory broth to be excellent for cooking rice and other grains.  I can also add a quart of this rich wild broth to a larger pot of winter vegetable soup. At other times just the broth alone makes a comforting warm drink in a mug.  This method of extracting the goodness of the hickory nut does not require a tedious meat extraction with a hand pick, but instead quickly makes a water extract of the whole nut.

      The third most abundant nut on Wanda Ridge is the black oak acorn.  They are more rounded than the white oak acorn and have a beautiful dappled exterior.  Knowing that black oak acorns contain even more tannin than the white oaks, I pondered for several years how I could make good use of these nuts as ingesting them seemed too bitter and unappetizing.  This Autumn the black oak acorn mast was particularly abundant so I began to collect them to aesthetically display in a bowl on my kitchen table until I received further guidance on this process.


       Recently I have been offering my foraged tree nuts to students in my classes at Durham School of the Arts where I work a couple of days a week as a substitute teacher. Since hickory nuts were scarce this fall, I decided instead to offer one black oak acorn to each student.  With these nuts, I have developed a protocol for using them as an aid to connect with the outdoor natural world on cold winter days of indoor classroom focus. One might understand this as an natural remedy for those struggling from the winter blues or SAD - seasonal affective disorder. Here is one protocol for the therapeutic use of tree nuts based on my own experimentation:

1 - Place the nut in your pocket or hand bag for good vibes.
2 - Or, place under your pillow at night for guiding dreams.
3 - Do not crack or try to open the nut. This may result in bad vibes.
4 - If your nut cracks, simply draw a smiling face on the nut's surface and no bad vibes will follow.
5 - When you sense that your tree nut no longer provides good vibes for you, simply toss it to a hungry squirrel to receive even better vibes.  The squirrel may also bury the nut and then, either return later to dig it up to eat, or will forget its burial location, in which case the nut may sprout and a new tree will follow. 

       I remind all who would carry a tree nut on their person that "good vibes" have nothing to do with "good luck."  We do not need luck to receive the benefits of warmth and illumination from the sun.  All we have to do is make ourselves available and be receptive to this grace of the universe.  A tree nut carries loads of good vibrations as it is a living being with a huge energetic potential to either nourish other creatures or grow into a handsome oak or hickory tree.  Humans are fully capable of perceiving these arboreal vibes, even when we don't directly detect them with our five senses. Think of all the infrared and ultraviolet radiation we receive from the sun without the ability to directly perceive it with our five senses! 

       The Oak-hickory forest has the largest range of any deciduous forest ecosystem in eastern America and certainly dominates the Piedmont region of central North Carolina where I live. Although there may be over seventy other species of native trees thriving amidst the Oak-hickory community, to become familiar with our Piedmont forest first means to connect with and understand the oak and hickory elders of the woods.  It is their nuts that provide the primary supply of food for wildlife.  For us as humans to choose to participate in this great masting event will ensure that our wild side is never entirely snuffed out by cultural inbreeding pressures from modern civilization.

       Finally, gathering tree nuts helps us reconnect with our ancient, embedded hunter-gatherer instincts.  To be alone in the forest and stooping to pick up a beautiful plump nut, half hidden in the leaf litter, is a primitive act.  In so doing we may be surprised to find even greater pleasure in later emptying our pockets onto the kitchen table and pondering creatively how we might derive nutrition, medicine and inspiration from these abundant and often taken for granted gifts of Mother Nature.
Photo #1 by Riojosie - Riverdave uses fire hollowed mortar and pestle to process backyard hickory nuts
Photo #2 by Riverdave - crushed hickory nuts ready to be cooked
Photo #3 by Riverdave - black oak acorns to offer for good vibes ...