Posts Tagged ‘chestnut oak’

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh . . . Ecclesiastes 12:1

A forest has grown up now on the green slopes of Becky Mountain where Mr. Norwood’s cattle once grazed, and where we as children were wont to ramble, when we could. Mama set limits as to where we could go without her supervision — as far as the fence at the barn on the south side, to the end of the garden on the west, and to the chicken houses on the north. We had a wonderful little brook that ran behind the barn and on down between our house and the chicken houses. It was here Mama let us expand our territory just a little . . . a large fenced tract, unoccupied save for a small cemetery, lay on the north and stretched all the way from the highway, past our house, the chicken houses and the garden, all the way up to the pasture. Our little brook ran under that fence just below the chicken houses. Mama let us duck under the fence at the brook (the branch we called it) and play in that other wooded space, so long as we didn’t go too far. We didn’t know how far was too far, so sometimes we even went to the cemetery, where we had a grand time exploring and reading the tombstones. I remember one. The name of the deceased was A. J. Walker. In our childish ignorance we assumed that person met his demise by jaywalking. We took it as a warning for when we might next be in Brevard.

My youngest brother was practically an infant the first year we lived as renters at Mr. Norwood’s farm. Mama said Mr. Norwood was a “gentleman” farmer. He lived in town and drove three miles out and back every day to tend to his cows and chickens. He also had cats, which pleased us kids, for we loved cats, to the extreme. And at the barn he had a fair number of rats, which we saw from time to time. Some of them were pretty big — wharf rats Mama called them. It seemed the cats didn’t make much of a dent in those big rats. Cats are great hunters, but they do know when they are outmatched!

I was the only girl, and the oldest, so I had to help Mama. One of my jobs was to hang my little brother’s diapers on the clothesline to dry. For a reason that I can not remember, Mr. Norwood had stretched a section of electric fence on the clothesline poles. The electric wire was about waist level to me and the clothesline was on the same poles, high above the electric wire. But not high enough, we found out. Mama told me to be careful, to make sure I didn’t touch the electric wire. And I was. But Zzzzzzzt! Right away I got zapped. Had I touched the wire? I didn’t think so. So I tried again. Carefully I fastened the freshly laundered diaper to the clothesline with the wooden clothes pin. Zzzzzzzt! Again! I knew I hadn’t touched Mr. Norwood’s wire. What could be wrong? I stood back, staring at the venomous wire and the diaper hanging by one pin and flapping in the breeze. And then I saw.

In those days diapers were about fifteen inches wide and about three feet long. The unpinned side of the diaper was just long enough to flap against Mr. Norwood’s electric fence, and had not Daddy already told me? — Water conducts electricity! The diapers were wet! I didn’t see a way out of my predicament, so I left the wet diaper where it was and took my laundry back to Mama and she solved the problem. I don’t remember how.

Mr. Norwood’s was a lovely place. There were double daffodils in the early spring, and big boxwoods in the front yard with their exotic green scent. Weigela shrubbery bloomed along the road to the barn, and other unnamed by beautiful plantings graced the premises. Little pink roses and Japanese honeysuckles grew along the driveway and their fragrance was delightful. And out near the highway was the most interesting plant I ever saw. The tiny blossoms hugged the top of their stem, yellowish at the bottom, and tapering orange to near red at the tip. It was decades after we moved from there before I saw another and learned its name — red hot poker– which it certainly resembles.

We had a very shapely and attractive holly tree down near the mailbox. It was about twelve or fifteen feet tall, very lush and healthy. Every spring it was covered in white blossoms, but never ever was there a red berry in the winter, not even one! When I complained about our barren holly Mama said it was a male holly and would never bear berries. I was so disappointed! Since then I have discovered that not only hollies, but persimmons, and who knows what else, are male and female, with the male flowering but not producing fruit.

Our rented house was old, even then. Its most impressive feature was the massive double stone fireplaces upstairs and down that rose up from the center of the house. The fireplace in the living room had been altered to accommodate a wood or coal burning heater. The other three were closed and we never used them. The interior walls were plaster; the exterior pebbledash. There were big porches front and back. An ell structure attached to the main house contained a dining room and a little kitchen. An in house bathroom had been added on the back porch. There was a windowless little house out back where Daddy worked on his many projects, and behind it a stone retaining wall and an area near the brook where someone had built a fine outdoor cooking site. Two rock springs were nearby. Our water was pumped from one of them. It was readily apparent even to us young folks that painstaking care had once been lavished upon this place.

Quercus michauxii by Sophie McKenzie
Source: iNaturalist.com
Creative Commons license CC BY NC

Daddy hung a swing for us in a big sycamore tree in the front yard. I had never seen a sycamore tree before that I was aware of, There were chestnut oaks there also. I learned about chestnut oaks one fall afternoon when Daddy was walking in the woods with us. I picked up a very large acorn from the path, amazed at its size. It was almost twice as big as any acorn I had seen. Daddy identified it as a chestnut oak acorn. I wondered why in he world if it was an acorn and not a chestnut, that folks called it a chestnut oak acorn. Daddy could have told me had I asked. But at that time in my life I kept my questions to myself. Again, it was decades later before I learned: the chestnut oak is indeed an oak and not a chestnut. However, the leaf of the chestnut oak strongly resembles the leaf of the American chestnut, which you might know, is nearing extinction now. Above is a photo of the chestnut oak acorn in its cap, at almost dead center. The leaf of the chestnut oak, on the left and greenish in color, is pointing toward the acorn.

So much for oaks and chestnuts. The best trees were the magnificent beeches. There, near the French Broad River, the beeches were in their element and they were large and plentiful. We carved our initials in their smooth gray bark and hid our treasures in the intricate and spreading profusion of their above ground roots. And in the fall we hulled and ate their litle tripartite nuts. Speaking of nuts, our neighborhood friends had hazel nuts. They grew along the little road that went up to their house on the hill. We cracked them in our teeth — yes — who would dare do that now? It’s a wonder I have any molars left.

Fagus grandiflora by Barbara Katzenburg
American beech roots with hidey holes
Source: iNaturalist.com
Creative Commons license CC BY NC

The best thing about those beeches was the birds, especially on summer mornings. I must tell you that since those days I have heard nothing to match the enthralling sound of scores of birds, with their peeps, twitters, chirrups and mutters singing in bright harmony at sunrise. My brothers and I were up early and out the back door. My feet still remember the cool, smooth stones of the walkway. I can still see the green and gold of our sun dappled kingdom as Gene, Gary and I walked, three abreast, entranced by the sounds in the treetops above us. We found the words we attempted to speak to each other were lost in the din of that joyous early morning song. It was a magical time; it should have lasted forever; it almost does, in memory.

But before I go, there is one more tree I must tell you about. We found it one morning in April, most likely a Saturday, for us kids went to school and church other days. Mama was with us that day, and the littlest one, Vance, would have been also. Mama would likely have been carrying him most of the way, since he was very young when we lived there. It was one of those enticing spring days that reach inside your house with balmy fingers and draw you outside. Mama led us up through the garden gate and into the pasture. Then like little colts set free we skipped and frolicked and laughed our way up that steep grassy hill, almost to the road that runs along the top of Becky Mountain. Way up there in a small outcrop of rocks we discovered a bubbling little spring! What an amazement! Who would have known there would be water up here? My mother, of course. She would have spied it out one day while we were at school.

When we came back down the hill we took the trail that would under the chestnut oak tree, but there were no fat acorns. The animals had eaten them all during the winter. We were in the woods now, on our way back home for a bite to eat. Though it was only April, already it was getting pretty warm. A little breeze began to stir, and as it did a very pleasant scent wafted over us, delicately sweet and spicy. Oh my! How lovely! There was nothing to do but discover the source of that delightful fragrance. Very soon we found it, in a little clearing, resplendent in a host of pink blossoms — a wild crabapple tree — exuding its intoxicating perfume of roses and cloves, graciously extending a scepter of welcome to both pollinators and people. What a sight! Even my little brothers were impressed with the beauty of that young tree in full flower. It stood maybe fifteen feet high. Its lowest branches were just above my head. Though it was a wild tree, happenstance had placed it in a little open space where it had flourished in just the right setting of sun and shadow. It did bear fruit that fall, as all crabapples do. The little apples had green skins and were about an inch in diameter, hard and sour tasting, but edible, if you have good teeth and are very hungry.

That crabapple tree was just one of many treasures Mr. Norwood’s farm afforded us. But guess what. That day under the crabapple tree, just like it happened when I found the chestnut oak acorn, I looked down, and there was a nice looking smooth rock. I always liked rocks, so I picked it up. I was only about eleven years old, but I had seen a tomahawk head before, and I knew what it was. Wow! What a discovery! Mama said I could keep it, and so I did for a long time. I eventually sold it to Mr. Norwood for five dollars, which was a pile of money for a kid like me at that time.

After that nearly a lifetime passed before I had the pleasure of experiencing wild crabapples in bloom. I had not thought about that childhood experience in ages, when one Sunday after church I decided to take a little detour from my normal route home. I turned down a gravel service road in the Pisgah National Forest. I had been that way before, but not in April. To my surprise when I rounded a familiar turn, I found stretched out alongside the road before me not one, not two, or five, but many Mature crabapples in full bloom, laden with pink blossoms and scenting the air with their captivating aroma. I stopped the car and got out for a few minutes to smell the roses (apples). In previous excursions along this road I had not recognized these trees for what they were. I went back that way some years later, with a good camera, hoping for photos, but for some reason there were hardly any blossoms that year and a number of the older trees had died.

Malus angustifolia by Carol and Robert
Source: iNaturalist.com
Creative Commons license CC BY NC

Included here is a very good representation of the type of wild crabapple I am familiar with. This photo was taken within a few miles of Becky Mountain, and depicts the southern crabapple, also known as the narrow leaf crabapple. Note the obvious thorns. All apples are of the rose family, and the southern crabapple has thorns to prove it! Its scientific name is Malus angustifolia.

Nowadays folks buy ornamental crabapple trees to plant in their yards and every spring these cultivated varieties put on a wonderful show. As they grow older and larger they are really quite beautiful, especially the pink ones. But in one thing they are lacking, and that is fragrance. In my experience the pale scent of a cultivar is no match for the tangy and provocative scent of the true wild crabapple, whose numbers, sadly, are slowly dwindling.


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