Nov 1, 2007

It's Gettin' Too Dark, Too Dark To Pick*

It's pecan time again.

The weather is finally cooling off, and the pecans have been dropping like determined wooden rain. If a good wind comes up from the north, rattling the branches against each other you can watch them fall and bounce in the grass like hundreds of huge crickets, and the sound of them on a metal roof is like hailstones. My back yard only holds three juvenile trees, but I can't walk a step without hearing one crack and crunch under my bare feet. The very old tree in the corner of the Back backyard is loaded, and the ground beneath is littered with them, just below the tips of the grass.

This weekend is the Louisiana Pecan Festival in the thriving metroplex that is Colfax. There'll be drunk rednecks, toothless trailer trash skanks looking to pick up equally toothless men in pickup trucks, and the old Pecan Queen will step down from her throne to allow the new, fresh Pecan Queen to take up the Gnarled Branch of Office and place the wooden crown on her fair head. The old Queen will be lead off to the huge Pecan Castle, where she will remain until the end of the festivities, at which time she will be burned along with the Castle in a roaring, nutty bonfire.

Okay, so maybe I'm being a little facetious.

It definitely is pecan time, though. The crisp air heralds the end of the year, the drawing of the curtains. Hallo'een is over, and from here it's all downhill. The Pecan Festival, then the big parade at the Natchitoches Festival of Lights, and then Thanksgiving will be upon us with it's feasts and family, and maybe a game of football in the back yard. After that it's only natural that we all roll through a speedy series of big sales at the retail chains, and that leads us right smack into Xmas and before we've had time to clear our eyes from the lights and the ornaments and the tinsel it's New Years Eve and New Years Day and oh my gods it's 2008, where did the year go? And in front of us will be the long climb toward Spring, and rebirth.

I've been out in the back yard picking pecans in the evenings after work most every day now. It's introspective times like this that I look back at the past decades, at the boy I was, and compare him to the man I've become. Pecan picking. What I used to see as required drudgery is now meditation, a sort of therapy, and paying therapy at that. My father would spend hours every evening, from the time he got home until dark under one of the six or so pecan trees that dot our property, and weekends would find him out all day, stooping his lanky frame down to pick up a handful here or a few there. White plastic five gallon buckets of them would magically appear on the back patio, pecans carefully piled well over the rim, a brown, dusty tidal wave waiting to happen. In the evenings he'd always have the capacious pockets of his overalls bulging with black-striped pecans, which he'd carefully empty out with his big, gnarled hands into a waiting container.

When he was well and hale he'd spend hours each night at the kitchen table working with a Reed pecan cracker, a sort of metal-handled hammer and anvil that would make short work of the shell. He'd crack pecans and crack them some more until the tray the cracker stood on was full. He'd carefully empty the tray into a brown paper grocery bag with a soft wooden rustle, then reach down to the other side and fill the tray again with whole nuts, and patiently start working again. The whole house would be full of the warm fall smell of them, and we'd take turns carefully weighing bags and taping them closed, marking the weight on the side in black grease pencil.

At his production height it got to where he'd be buried in orders from friends and coworkers of his and Mom's for cracked pecans--ten pounds here, twenty there, a hundred there. He'd sell them for just under the going market price and carefully put all the money away in a saltine cracker tin he kept in the closet. He called it his "mad money" even though my father's mad days were long past. And each year he'd have five or six hundred dollars carefully saved, which would help Mom pay for Xmas presents.

We tried to help, tried to make a share of the profits, tried to keep up, but we never could match his quiet determination, his strength and his stony patience. At the time we made a fair little profit ourselves, it was hard not to, but the arm muscle energy and the time it took to crack enough pecans to make a noticeable profit was daunting to us two young boys, who could make money a lot easier simply by doing our chores, so it was left to him to crack pecans and fill what seemed an endless supply of brown paper bags.

Now I find myself out in the back yard, the world's largest bipedal squirrel, crawling around on hands and knees pushing a plastic bucket in front of me. It's therapy to me now, no longer the drudgery it used to seem. Now I see it as picking up nickels, because one full bucket will sell for about fifteen dollars. It becomes sort of like Easter Egg hunting, only the egg's golden center tastes of summer sunshine and a sort of smoky, dry woody sweetness, and these eggs can be sold in quantity for a little mad money for Xmas. And each year I ponder what exactly it is I see in pecan picking. I can and do easily make more money sitting behind a desk at work, sorting and filing medical records and tapping away at the keyboard, but it's not rewarding, that sort of work. There's no soul to it. Seeing the bucket fill slowly, hearing the muted, woody thumping of a handful of pecans falling on each other, clearing a section of yard and moving on to another, that's rewarding. That sort of work has hands in it, has teeth. Cleaning the yard carefully, one pecan at a time, and then coming back out the next day to find more have fallen. Each a few cents worth, each a few more seconds of quiet time with my soul.

I too go out after work now, and pick until it's too dark to see them anymore. My daughter has no patience for it at all, can't see it's worth right now in money or time; her soul is too light and airy to need dusting and repair, and I don't press her to it. She'll discover it in her own time, or not. So now I slowly fill my buckets and load them up in the wheelbarrow and roll it to Mom's house to be weighed and bagged. She served my father and now me as the middleman, keeper of the big list of buyer's names. It is she who still brings the carefully taped brown paper bags here and there to buyers who remember the time some twenty or more years ago when my father supplied them. I don't crack them, it's still far too much doing for not much return, and I find myself with what seems more and more to do each evening other than cracking pecans but the picking, for me, that's the thing. Finding them lying in the grass that's slowly dying from the cold, the thick brown ovals of the Mahans, the long cigar-tapers of the Stuart paper shells, and when I'm feeling really adventurous it's the littlest-fingernail-sized native pecans, hidden by the thousands in the grass.

This time of year always makes me think of my childhood, grade school to be precise. Our playground was an asphalt expanse littered with basketball hoops, some four-square grids with their careful yellow geometry and three or four ancient pecan trees. They stood spaced far apart, thick giants with gnarled black limbs, each with the asphalt pushed up and broken around their massive trunks like permafrost shoved away from the blunt prow of an icebreaker. My schoolbus always arrived early, and so I was always the first or second kid on the playground before the morning bell, and I can clearly remember the touch of chill in the air as I walked around and picked up handfuls of paper shell pecans. The asphalt made it easy to find them, and I'd walk until I had eight or ten, and then I'd sit somewhere quiet and open them.

How they felt as I cracked them against each other in my palms, the muted pop as one gave way before the other. How the shells would come away in huge, ragged sections, revealing the darkly golden, heavily wrinkled meat. It's more a part of me than any friendship I made during those tough, troubling years, more a part of me than any Field Day or textbook lesson. The sharp, dry taste of the first pecan of the season now brings me wheeling back to those times with the speed of a pecan falling onto a tin roof. I don't think anything has ever tasted quite so good as those pecans, eaten in the sharp cool of the morning. I doubt anything ever could.

* With apologies to Bob Dylan and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door."


Schmoopie said...

This is one beautiful piece of writing! It brought me back to my childhood as I used to sit at our kitchen table and crack pecans for my mom when she baked cookies and brownies. It is such a satisfying thing to do.

Scott from Oregon said...

My pops' mother lived most of her life in Norlins. WHenever she came out to visit, she brought us praline cakes...


It was almost worth putting up with her bigotry and Baptist bullshit...

Joan of Argghh! said...

My mom would make us whistle while we cracked the pecans so we couldn't eat 'em!

Nancy Dancehall said...

LOL@ Joan of Argghh's mom. :-)

With a touch of editing, I think this could be sent to The Sun. Magazine.

Irrelephant said...

Schmoop, I'm glad I could bring back some good memories of yours. I seem to do my best when digging through the 'attic.'

Scott, if they were almost worth putting up with the Baptist bull and the bigotry then she wasn't cooking well enough. *lol*

Joan, that's excellent! *lmao* I can just see a whole table-full of pecan-cracking kids, whistling while they work.

Nancy, so I take it you've got your blue pencil? You've got my email, feel free to edit!

Rayne said...

I grew up in Ct. No pecans there. After I married my mother moved to Georgia and one evening she tried to explain to me about pecans and how important they were there. I didn't get it. My brother is a chef and part owner of a restaurant and every holiday he puts in extra days getting pecan pies ready because the table isn't set without a pecan pie. Still didn't understand.
Now, I think I have a better handle on it.
For me, it was picking raspberries.

Irrelephant said...

Rayne, pecans are such a part of this state it's almost creepy. A Thanksgiving dinner without at least two different pecan pies is a travesty in my Mom's eyes. *s*

Raspberries. They used to grow in a huge wild bramble along the old turn row back when this was all in cotton. I wish now I had developed a taste for them, because I could have gorged myself on them back then.