Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bitternut Hickory

Sometimes the timber makes me feel like an idiot. I’m a neophyte at taxonomy. After a few years of trying to decipher which tree is which, I suspect I’ll always be a neophyte at taxonomy. I’m embarrassed to admit how long I lived here without figuring out the difference between elm and hackberry.

Shagbark Hickory
This fall the bitternut hickories took me by complete surprise. I had recognized shagbark hickory early on. (It has shaggy bark, hence the name.) Not being in the habit of eating random nuts off the ground, I had not identified the bitternut trees until I walked into the grove on the north slope above the road.

Bitternut is the tallest native hickory here, growing on hillsides and along streams. Squirrels store and eat its bitter-tasting, heart-shaped nuts. Carya cordiformis shares a plant family — and a dryad — with the walnut. It can hybridize with the pecan, producing sweet nuts called hicans. (Hybridization is one reason that I have little hope for myself as a taxonomist.)

When European settlers took this land, hickory and oak were the primary forest trees. Walking the timber would have been easier then, the undergrowth not as thick with rampant buckbrush and greenbriar, and invasive honeysuckle yet to be introduced. Oak-hickory groves, like the small patch on my north hillside, opened the woods to sun, allowing shafts of light to penetrate to the forest floor.

Oak and Hickory
The shagbarks turn brilliant gold in early fall. By the time they’ve faded to brown, the bitternuts take up the theme, creating a canopy of sunlight at the roof of the forest. Walking into a grove of bitternut hickories in autumn, you enter the rarified air of Helios. The smooth trunks tower like the Colossus of Rhodes before the earthquake. The leaves are light incarnate.

Light feeds the leaves. The leaves feed the tree for a season, then turn the color of light and drift to the ground. The tree holds the light. When I gather kindling or deadwood for a fire, I collect sunlight. When I burn it, I release light into flame. I warm my house with the fire of the sun.

“The sun works every day and there’s no rest
for him or for his horses once
the rose-fingered dawn leaves the ocean waters
and begins to scale the firmament.
For with night the sun is swept across the waves
in a hollow cup of gleaming gold,
a wondrous bed with wings, forged by Hephaistos;
it speeds him sleeping over salt foam
from the Hesperides to the Ethiopian desert.
There his fleet chariot and horses wait
till Dawn comes, early child of morning.”
            — Mimnermos, tr. Willis Barnstone

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