There is a brief moment when, as the weather changes and the leaves on the fruit trees fall to the ground, I am lulled into feeling that it is autumn in Wisconsin, my favorite time of year. Here at our ranch in the Chihuahuan Desert of southwest New Mexico, we are down to the final stretch in the orchard. I’ve been picking pecans. It’s the last crop we harvest, which means soon we will collect our garden tools, roll up the hoses, and wrap the pipes until February when the whole rodeo starts up again.
The pecans hold mysteries that make them worth picking. The husk is green and the size and shape of a Medjool date. When the fruit is ripe the husk cracks just enough on four sides to allow fingernails in to pry it open, exposing a moist nut as though a single drop of dew found its way inside during the night. The pungent aroma that gets on my hands smells like something I might use to clean my counter tops. The only unpleasant part of the experience is that the husks turn my fingers and fingernails black and it takes weeks for it to wear off. This isn’t a problem except when I go to town and feel it necessary to explain why it is my hands look like I’ve just changed the oil in my truck.
There are two times during the growing season that I contemplate Creation. First in spring when the seeds we planted pop up through the soil and again when I pick something as lovely as a pecan. In the third grade my teacher handed each student three Styrofoam cups, a bag of dirt, and a few tomato seeds. After creating holes in the dirt with our index fingers and sticking the seeds inside, we were instructed to put one cup on the shelf in the broom closet and the remaining two cups on the windowsill. One cup went under a sign that read WATER; the other under a sign that read DO NOT WATER. As you can imagine, a week later only those seeds that had been watered and received sunlight poked through the soil. When I asked my teacher why it happened she mistook my question and answered instead with how it happened. My family had an enormous garden in our backyard where my sisters and I spent summers planting, weeding, and picking until our little finger bled. I already knew the how of things and was disappointed with my teacher’s response. I still have not found the answer to my original question. Why does a tiny seed grow into a pecan? Yes, I have a rudimentary understanding of biology, chemistry and genetics, but even the scientific disciplines still wrestle with that moment—that spark of life. As I get older, I’m growing comfortable with the fact that not all questions need answers.
As our work is slowing down in the orchard, wildlife is frantically stockpiling for the cold months ahead. While I scouted the ground under the trees searching for pecans, I noticed the rabbits were one step ahead of me. They’d shown up during the night and hauled off with their bounty. I found a trail of empty husks leading out to the horse corrals and beyond. Not long ago I discovered pecan shell in a pair of winter boots.
I think of my own roots while I’m plucking nuts from branches high above my head. Both my grandmothers made pecan pie during the holidays. All that Karo syrup and whipped cream, it’s no wonder the adults yelled at us kids to settle down after Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. We are a big Irish-Catholic family. There were nine cousins born within five years. Our parents drank and smoked and now I know why. My aunts tried their best to herd us to bed as our uncles sat back with the top buttons on their pants undone as they digested a good meal. My grandma swatted at us as we danced around the living room like maniacs while one of my cousins manned the music beat buttons on an electric organ that sat in the corner of the room. There was swearing and crying and carrying on, but there was also a lot of laughter.
Maybe what I like most about this time of year is that pecan picking and cooler temperatures stir memories, and I am transported to a time when my life was immediate and simple. To a place that once held all the people I loved most.