For days the TV meteorologist had been hyping a coming cold front with growing excitement, but this day hardly seemed like fall. In fact, with the temperature climbing toward a new record, only the golden leaves matched the date on the calendar.
Before leaving for work, my wife, Linda, reminded me that she needed a package of pecans for her signature holiday dish—candied yams with apricots. I could have gone to one of the big-box stores, but I decided to save money and gather pecans in our yard the old-fashioned way.
My teenage daughter, Hallie, enjoying the first installment of her three-day Thanksgiving holiday, slept until 10:30 a.m. But as soon as she finished breakfast, I cajoled her into helping me on the pecan hunt before she could turn on the television or go online.
We have two pecan trees on our almost-quarter-acre lot, a native and a paper-shell hybrid. Thanks to nearly unprecedented rainfall the past year, both trees had produced the best crop I could remember in the nine years we’d lived here.
Before we started, I retrieved from the attic a family heirloom still quite serviceable after all these years—my late grandfather’s homemade pecan picker. He had taken a dowel about the size of a closet clothes rod and used two roofing nails to attach a Vienna sausage can on one end, which he used as a scoop. Nothing fancy, but it worked.
Like many old-time Texans, Granddad loved picking up pecans. One of my earliest memories is helping him gather pecans on the Capitol grounds. He’d use his pocketknife to break one open, hand me the tasty tidbit and then crack one open for himself. The rest he’d put in the pocket of his starched khaki pants for later snacking or to give to my grandmother.
Only now do I understand what he had been up to in getting me excited about joining him in gathering pecans. He had an energetic helper with a pliable spine. More than a half-century later, I knew I could similarly take advantage of youthful exuberance if I handled it just right. Like many teenagers, if Hallie had her choice, she’d spend most of her time in cyberspace or watching the tube. It would take some finessing to get her enthusiastic about picking pecans.
Though pecans seemed to be scattered everywhere, my daughter and I quickly found that collecting the black-striped nuts would not be a simple process. If you have a pristine green lawn such as you’d find around the Capitol or at homes where the resident is a better yard technician than I am, the quest is easier. But our lawn was hidden under raked leaves and broken tree limbs, a perfect camouflage for pecans.
I told Hallie we would approach the hunt like CSI pros since she has studied forensic science in school. We would forage systematically, cutting the area around the trees into imaginary grids. Cleverly, I also fostered a friendly daddy-daughter competition to see who could find the most pecans.
“Here’s a bunch,” Hallie would say excitedly, and then I’d hear multiple thunks as she tossed pecans into her bucket.
The organized search worked for a while, but soon we just milled around, going from honey hole to honey hole. We each toted a white plastic bucket. Thunk by thunk, we accumulated a lot of pecans.
As we hunted, I told Hallie what I knew about Texas pecans. Early arrivals to Texas found the riverbanks lined with the nut-bearing trees, which belong to the hickory family. That’s how the Nueces River got its name—nueces being Spanish for nuts, which the first explorers found in abundance. Long before the Spaniards, the Indians made pecans a major portion of their diet and used them for trade. For thousands of years, people in Texas have gathered pecans in anticipation of the coming barren months of winter.
Perhaps, as we became increasingly enthusiastic in our hunt, a lingering genetic memory kicked in. We became part of a process as fundamental as the changing seasons—the harvesting and storing of food.
In the here and now, I found looking for camouflaged pecans to be wonderfully focusing. My mind drained as my bucket filled. It later came to me that for a couple of hours, as we foraged in sort of an autumnal Easter egg hunt, we had no past and no future. Both of us had become completely absorbed in the now, the refreshing equivalent of a mental spinal block.
Long ago, philosophers figured out the importance of living in the moment. You can find the philosophy of the all-important now written in the Tao Te Ching or being discussed at the nearest 12-step meeting. Unfortunately, that simple truth is lost on us most of the time.
When the wind swung around from the north, we sought shelter. We placed two full-to-the-brim buckets on our enclosed back porch, safe from squirrels. The long-awaited cold front had arrived, the temperature falling faster than ripe pecans.
Mike Cox wrote about coffee mugs in the July issue of Texas Co-op Power. A former longtime employee of the Texas Department of Public Safety, he points out it is legal to gather pecans in parks or other public areas if you aren’t lucky enough to have your own pecan trees.
Photo illustration by Frank Curry