Monday, October 09, 2006

Gathering Chestnuts

Yesterday was a gorgeous day, warm and bright, the sun dazzling the colors on every hillside. This week is the last pick-up date for city brush removal, although they'll be back later for the leaves, and we should have been working in the yard. Needless to say, we weren't. We tried to go to Brain Rock State Park, but turned around and left after remembering the $6 admission fee is still collected on weekends until after Columbus Day. So we ended up at the Experiment Station instead.

The experiment station is one of the many properties owned by my alma mater. A tiny little main campus with a small student body, the school prides itself on their properties, owning more land than any other college in the nation. The acreage at the current Experiment Station is quite limited; the original experiment station was bisected when the interstate went up in the early 1960s and the college donated the other half to the city. The remaining portion serves as the college arboretum, and contains a diverse array of beautiful trees. Sections of the trails open up to big park-like areas, with tall trees towering over grassy knolls.

I had not been there in eleven years, not since I was a teaching assistant for dendrology, shepherding my section of students through the woods. Returning was bittersweet. On the one hand, I loved the courses where we spent the entire three hour labs outdoors, especially the plants courses: dendrology, dendrology II, systematic botany, winter botany. Winter botany was a class I'd begged for; it hadn't existed previously, but a group of us convinced our dendro professor that two fall semesters of dendrology were not enough, and we needed to keep going out to look at plants all through the spring semester as well. And I loved being a TA. It forced me to learn all the taxonomic features, inside and out, so I could teach them. Challenging, but fun. Remembering those days was the sweet.

The bitter came in when I realized how much I've forgotten. Plant taxonomy has aspects of a foreign language to it. The old adage, "use it or lose it" really does hold true. Before getting laid off in the end of July, I'd been working indoors in the chromatography department of a lab for 3.5 years. Not much opportunity for keeping my skills sharp there. So it was hard for me, walking these trails I had known so intimately... I used to know every single woody species there. I still know most of them, and I still retain the knowledge and skills to key out those I've forgotten, mostly specimens planted in the arboretum, many that I haven't seen in eleven years because I never actually saw them in their natural habitat. But it was sort of a slap in the face to be confronted with all that lost knowledge.

There is a chestnut tree growing in the arboretum section, large enough to bear fruit. This I remembered clearly; it was always a landmark on my past visits. So yesterday, like every other past autumn visit, I hunted for chestnuts. The search is never particularly bountiful: fresh chestnuts are sweet and tasty, and the squirrels always clean up. I usually find just a few by nosing through the spiny husks littering the ground. Yesterday I found ten, which might not sound like much, but was a new record for me. And you know what the strange thing is? I've never had roasted chestnuts, of holiday song fame. I guess because I never find enough to bother, and I like them raw, obviously. Someday I'll try them roasted. Someday...


Erin said...

Ah, but they are so good raw. That's where I got my mumbo-jumbo puffball one year. Yummers!

I should go back. I haven't been there since my days as a TA, which was only one year after you (since you set me up on the excellerated track).

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I loved and used both portions of this place, but that was many years ago.

I had one experience there that involved a little too much skin and a lot of poison ivy. But I won't go into details because of everyone's delicate sensitivities.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

Ah yes, I remember it well, lo these many years.