MIXED NUTS: The Gifts of the “Standing People”
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
One of my valued possessions is an old, faded and care-worn denim jacket. It has a history, has served me well as I rode horses, baled hay, roamed the woods with my canine friends, cast flies upon the surfaces of ponds and streams in hopes of luring wary bass, bluegills, and trout from their watery lairs. In the breast pocket is a buckeye, dry and shriveled by the ravages of time. I have kept it for many years. My grandfather always counseled that carrying a buckeye would prevent rheumatism.
When I was a boy and for years afterward, I would collect pockets full of shiny brown buckeyes every fall. After a while, my collections always lost their luster and dried up. I never quite knew what to do with them. Fresh out of their spiny hulls, they looked good enough to eat, but, alas, they contain glucosides, poisonous to humans, sometimes even causing death among livestock.
Nevertheless, squirrels seem to relish them without ill effect.
Basic to much Native American spirituality was the concept that all creatures possess spirit, are to be regarded as persons. According to Dr. Robin Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweet Grass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and The Teachings of Plants, in the Anishinaabe language, as in others, trees are considered persons and were referred to as the Standing People. Nuts are gifts of the Standing People.
According to Dr. Kimmerer, nut bearing trees, unlike fruit trees, do not produce a large crop annually. Rather, they store up calories until there are enough to produce a heavy crop. There is no discernable rhyme or reason to this cycle, but all the trees in the forest get the message and produce at the same time.
When nut trees produce a bountiful crop, the squirrel population increases. During lean years when nuts are scarce, squirrels find it necessary to range farther afield in search of food and are more likely to fall victim to hawks, foxes and feral cats. The relationship between squirrels and nut trees is, thus, a close and vital one.
When they were forced west on various Trails of Tears, of which there were several, to unfamiliar places called Kansas and Oklahoma, members of eastern Native American nations had little means of sustaining themselves. Groves of pecan trees provided vital protein and fats to see them through the winter. The nuts were boiled to create a sort of porridge. The fat that floated to the top became nut butter, a source of vitamins.
Trees that bear butternuts, pecans, hickory nuts and walnuts are all related. I have always regarded the sharp tang of walnuts that have just fallen from their trees to be one of nature’s most delightful fragrances, one of the earliest indications of the advent of autumn. Pioneers used walnut hulls to create dye.
Walnuts are much in demand today for use in cakes and candies. Butternut trees, also known as white walnuts, produced sap that can be turned into syrup and sugar, much like that of maple trees. Butternut bark also provided orange and yellow dyes.
There are two species of hickory trees, the shellbark and the shagbark. One of the most appealing of all aromas is that of food items, like ham and bacon that have been cured by smoking over hickory logs. I was fortunate to have grown up with that aroma. My grandfather, who farmed his 68 acres until late into his 80’s, smoked his own hams and pork shoulders, afterwards hanging them over the stairway into his basement to age. Walking down that stairway was pure heaven.
Hickory trees also provide nuts that are desired by both squirrels and humans, and Native Americans used the wood to make bows. As with other nut bearing trees, hickory sap can be boiled down to make sugar and syrup.
I read about making maple syrup when I was ten or eleven years old, and I would not rest until Grandpa tapped the big maple trees in his front yard. For days on end, every trip to the farm saw me toting buckets of sap to the kitchen to be boiled interminably on the big iron woodstove. In the end, we actually did produce a small bit of syrup. I have read that it takes about forty gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of syrup, a long, arduous process.
Before the importation of the honeybee by the Dutch at New Amsterdam, the maple tree provided one of the few sources of sugar for Native Americans. Generally a log was hollowed out, and stones were heated in the campfire. When the sap was poured into the hollowed log, the heated stones were dropped in, causing the maple sugar to coagulate on the hard surfaces. The resulting maple sugar was often mixed with bear fat to create a sort of candy.
There was a time when chestnut trees, the Queen of American forest trees, covered the land east of the Mississippi. Then, sometime around 1904, a fungus known as the chestnut blight arrived in a shipment from Japan. By 1940, nearly all American chestnut trees had gone the way of the elm tree, into oblivion. Chestnut trees were not only valuable for their edible nuts but because they provided beautiful wood for furniture making. Those chestnut trees now in existence are either Chinese chestnuts or hybrids and not regarded as equal to the extinct American variety. The American Chestnut Foundation is devoted to developing a blight resistant variety, so maybe that beloved tree will once again flourish in towns and woodlands.
Twenty species of pine trees produce edible nuts, including southwestern pinion trees. When I was a young teacher on the Navaho reservation, some of my students would go off with their families for several days in the fall to pick pinion nuts. The firs wild bears I ever encountered, a pair of yearlings, were busily gobbling up pinion nuts one autumn evening in the Chuska Mountains when I surprised them at their festivities.
The gifts of the Standing People to man and beast are many. From time to time, I take the shrunken old buckeye out and gaze at it. I doubt that it truly prevents rheumatism. On the other hand, at the age of 76, I have never had rheumatism. I never intend to have it, either.
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