Images shot by Great Outdoors columnist Rick Marsi. Rick Marsi / Correspondent photos
Most of us like to pick favorite things: favorite tree, favorite flower or bird. These favorites tend to remain constant in places where seasons don’t change.
In Florida, for example, if the sabal palm is your favorite tree in April, you’ll love it in February, too.
Things aren’t so simple in more seasonal settings. In these places, every time you think you’ve decided on a favorite tree, the seasons change, and — whoops — you’ve reversed yourself and found another favorite.
In March, you loved sugar maples for the way they lined up along country roads like loyal soldiers, lending order to a rural landscape known more for “at ease” than “attention.” Galvanized pails hung from spiles that probed oozing sapwood. Ping … ping … went the sap as it bounced off pail bottoms. Sweetness beyond measure — a pancake’s crowning glory — waited just beyond evaporation.
That was March, all in love with sugar maples. By May, you’d forgotten what they looked like. Apple blossoms now waved like a sea of light pink. Bees worked overtime. Orchards promised you’d crunch into shiny red fruits that crunched back.
Apple tree infatuation. You fell head over heels.
Then petals wilted. Summer came. When it did, river willows hula danced on a soft July morning. They ruled summer, defined it — bending, relaxed, flexible. Branches swished lazily, each one a horse tail shooing flies.
And now, raking leaves, you face autumn. It begins glorious, warm, then turns bare-branched and somber. What favorite tree now? What wooden symbol of hope as cold weather turns on the stove?
I look to the shagbark hickory, provider of nuts to both wildlife and people who seek them.
From Maine to northern Florida, west to the Great Lakes and Texas, this denizen of hillsides and lowland valleys has inspired autumn search parties ever since the first forager cracked open its tawny, thin-shelled nuts and tasted sweet kernels inside.
The key to finding your own shagbark hickory lies in looking for a scraggly silhouette. The narrow, cylindrical crowns of these trees twist and turn in unkempt fashion. Also unkempt is their light gray bark. It warps from the trunk in footlong strips that hold fast in the middle but peel away at both ends.
When you locate a shagbark, walk underneath and peer up at drooping branches. As you read this, they still will bare bounteous leaves turning yellow. Still clinging will be hickory nuts, encased in brown husks that will drop with the next northwest wind.
When that wind does it work, and nuts bounce on the ground, a crop will lie there for the taking. It is you or gray squirrels. The hickory tree doesn’t care.
Quickly now. The sun will set fast. Fill your pack basket. Feel good about storing things up. You’ll be sharing in a seasonal harvest, spinning with the cycle.
Best of all, you’ll be taking what the hickory can afford to give. If all goes well, this tree will provide you with the same bounty next year, a bounty extracted without violence or trespass.
Try to fill up a bushel so you can nurse your nut stash through the winter. Plan it so they run out the first week in March — just about sugar maple time, when sap runs and one’s thoughts of favorite trees start to change.
To follow Rick Marsi’s outdoor exploits, visit rickmarsi.com.