“What Am I, A Fucking Pioneer?” (Or, My Descent Into Forager’s Madness At The Behest Of Sinister And Seductive Hickory Nuts)

I walk sometimes.

I walk with the dogs. We walk through all seasons, down backroads, past farms, past barns, past fields. We walk over mower clippings, dry and dead leaves, and after a hard rain or a big storm, we walk over the jellied frog bits left behind. Today I walked and found a praying mantis climbing on my shoe, because apparently this is the Year of the Mantis. We are besieged. And that’s fine.

For years, we have also walked over nuts and the hulls that once held these nuts.

The hulls are green or brown, like smaller walnut exoskeletons. Is that the word? Exoskeletons? Who cares, I said it.

The nuts are white or a very light brown, tapered at the tips and with faint ridge lines running top to bottom. For the past many years, I have found one purpose for these nuts: they are most delightful to step on. They make an endearing crunch. It is easy to imagine that you are, in fact, stepping on tiny huts as a monstrous kaiju, or stepping on the delicate toe-bones of your many enemies. The crunch is incredibly pleasing: a faint hesitation before the crackling pop. It has the satisfaction of eating a cereal that stays crispy in milk.

These nuts are delightful to squirrels and chipmunks, who hoard them viciously and then, as is their way, forget where the fuck they put them. Trees, you see, are smarter than squirrels — they count on the fuzzy little dipshits to bury so many nuts and seeds that they forget where they buried them, so then new trees can be born. The squirrels either forget or become road paste, proving that trees are not only smarter than squirrels, but also potentially more cruel than squirrels, counting on their inevitable demise in order to spread their saplings.

This year, we appear to be having a mast year for these nuts — a mast year meaning, a year of superfluity. More nuts than usual appear. (Roll the tape on a 2016 election metaphor.) And this year, our dogs have taken to… well, eating them.

They hunt them like truffle-hungry pigs.

The one dog hunts them, then discards them. The other eats them.

I figured I’d better suss out what these nuts are, because they’re probably poisonous. The dogs are not wise. The dogs lick butts. They eat poop. They will, given half-a-moment, eat a poisonous mushroom. Dogs are wonderful, but let’s just say they’re not getting into a good school.

I searched. I Googled. I beseeched the gods.

And it turned out, we have hickory nut trees.

Shagbark hickory nut trees, which is to say, the trees have shaggy, loose, dangling bark — as if they are constantly trying to be rid of their own TREEFLESH, as if they are suffering from some kind of BARK LEPROSY.

And it turns out, you can eat hickory nuts.

(Dogs can, but mostly shouldn’t. Not poisonous immediately, but over time.)

One day I picked one up.

And I knew immediately I shouldn’t eat it. It’s a cardinal rule, isn’t it? DON’T EAT SHIT YOU FIND IN THE FUCKING WOODS, WEIRDO. That mushroom? Don’t eat it. That bug? Don’t eat it! That hamburger? Why is there a hamburger in the woods? That’s a trapburger, probably put there by a trapburger spider. Don’t eat that. Run away. Call somebody. Jeez.

Also, don’t eat weird nuts you find.

Just don’t do it.

That’s Life 101, man. PUT THAT WEIRD THING DOWN AND GO EAT A TACO.

But then —

Then I thought, it’s getting weird out there. I’m not a survivalist. I’m not a doomsday prepper. But I’m starting to feel that frequency, you get me? I’m kinda sorta like, UH-OH, all the time. A constant series of UH-OHs, endlessly looping in my head. Like, if you told me, IN SIX MONTHS, CIVILIZATION WILL HAVE FALLEN, I’d be upset, but also not precisely shocked, either. I’d nod and say, “Uh-huh, okay, okay.” I would maybe subscribe to your newsletter.

But that makes me worry even more: how unprepared am I? Am I really prepared for the collapse of civilization? I can’t eat my blog. My blog won’t even exist. I can maybe use the comp copies of my novels to build a shelter. I guess I could hunt and kill my neighbors, but — *whistles* — that seems drastic. Wouldn’t it be easier if I… learned to live off the land? Wouldn’t it be ideal if I learned how to forage like a fucking forager in the woods? The pioneers did it. The native peoples did it before, y’know, those goddamned pioneers came and fucked everything up.

I thought, I can do it, too.

I can eat these nuts.

And I did. I took that nut, and I gently pressed on it with my sneaker until — yes, yesss, there came that gentle mouse-skull crackle.

But I did not press down all the way. I then took the nut, peeled away its UNFEELING CHITINOUS EXTERIOR and then got at the nutmeat inside.

(There is no less palatable a phrase than “nutmeat,” by the way, unless of course you are so inclined to add “moist” to it as an adjective.)

(MOIST NUTMEAT.)

(Sorry.)

The nutmeat — okay, let’s just call it “the nut” — had a wonderful smell. A little bit pecan, but also a little bit butter-and-maple-syrup. It had a pancake satisfaction to it.

Then I put it in my mouth.

It was sweet. A little vegetal. It had that maple syrup vibe.

Like a sassy pecan, or a flirty walnut.

It appealed to me in more than just taste, though — it appealed to that ego-fed hipster thing that lives inside some of us, right? “I discovered a new thing,” you think, and it’s the same thing that tickles your mental perineum as when you discover some strange new coffee or a weird new fruit or some rad new YOGURT BAR where they serve like, MONKEY YOGURT or some shit. You both want to be the one to have discovered it and Instagrammed it and you also want to take all your friends down to the place, “YOU GUYS YOU NEED TO TRY THIS SMALL-BATCH LOCALLY-SOURCED MONKEY YOGURT, YOU CAN HAVE IT HOWEVER YOU LIKE, MY FAVORITE WAY IS TO ADD IN THE ESSENCE OF BANANA WATER AND BEE LEGS AS WELL AS A FINE DUSTING OF EXFOLIATED PYRITE.” I suspect this is in part just ego-boo, but maybe there’s also something evolutionary at work — the pride of discovering a thing that can both feed your tribe and also give you the social boost juice to go along with it.

Who knows.

Either way, I ate a random nut.

And it was good.

But then I thought, this is not a good thing I just did. I just took my sneaker, which may or may not have particles of dog poop on it, and I rolled it across the thing I just ate. I’m no better than the dogs. That’s how you get butt-worms. That’s not how you become the Cool Guy In The Village Who Discovered Those Tasty Nuts. That’s how you become Creepy Dave In The Faraway Hut Don’t Go Near Him He Has Raging Out-of-Control Butt-Worms.

I thought, I need to do this right.

I gathered some nuts.

I took them home.

I tried to crack them, which was a lot like trying to crack a safe with a pair of chopsticks. It just didn’t work. Mister Google said: “Use a hammer.” So I used a hammer, and I hammered the nut, and the nut spun away and hit my son in the head, and he frowned at me and I said YOU SHOULDN’T BE NEAR DADDY WHEN HE’S DOING IMPORTANT WORK and I left it at that. Then I got a pair of pliers, and that did work, except for the part where it obliterated the shell and the nutmeat (ew) into an inedible paste.

So, I thought, this shit isn’t worth it.

These nuts are stupid. Fuck these nuts. These are fucknuts. That’s where that word comes from, I decided. But. But! Maybe this was a lesson. A lesson I needed to learn. Sometimes, good things are worth it. A hard hike will take you to a beautiful lookout. A wonderful marriage can take some deep soul-searching. Sometimes to get the reward, you gotta put in the effort.

I renewed my assault.

I collected more nuts. A whole goddamn bucket’s worth. I wandered the roads and byways, the woods and forests, gathering nuts like a man-shaped squirrel. My wife watched me with grim fascination, and at one point she asked me, “Is this where you’re becoming an old man? Like, officially?” And I said YOU GO TO HELL I’M GOING TO GO OUT ON THE PORCH AND LISTEN TO BIRDS AND CRACK MY NUTS AND DIE PEACEFULLY.

Okay I didn’t say that, I instead said, “Yes, probably.”

But I did go watch a pileated woodpecker, which was nice.

These, then, were the nuts I collected:

And I got a fancy new nutcracker, too.

This was my setup last night:

I thought, here it is. Here we go. It’s worth it time. Time to make the nutmeat, baby. And already I had visions of harvesting tons of hickory nuts and cornering the market on hickory nuts because nobody sells hickory nuts, ha ha ha, I’m a genius, I thought.

A FUCKING NUTMEAT TYCOON. COUNTING MY NUTMONEY, DIVING IN AND OUT OF IT LIKE SCROOGE MOTHERFUCKING MCDUCK.

I gathered my supplies.

My son gathered around, excited.

My wife remained at a distance, dubious.

I placed the first nut into the NUT-CRUSHING CHAMBER:

Then I pulled the lever —

And the damn nut-cracker slipped out of my hand, onto the floor.

“Misfire,” I said.

“Oops,” said my son.

My wife frowned.

I tried again. Pressure. PRESSURE.

Nothing.

“I need to mount this somewhere,” I said.

“No,” my wife said, as her long, well-reasoned argument.

My son said, “Let me try,” and he’s six so I knew he wouldn’t be able to do it, but then I was like, oh shit what if he can, he will totally upstage me. But, bonus: now I have child labor, so that’s nice. Still — no, nope, he couldn’t do it, either.

I fidgeted with the nut (get your head out of the gutter) and tried again.

This time —

Kkkk.

It was happening.

KkKKKT.

I did it! I crushed a nut!

I AM PROMETHUS STEALING NUTS FROM THE NUTGODS

I AM HERO MAN FEEDING HIMSELF AND HIS FAMILY WITH NUTMEAT okay still ew, FEEDING HIMSELF AND HIS FAMILY WITH THE GOLDEN HICKORYFLESH, that sounds better, AND NOW NONE CAN DEFEAT HIM

OR ME BECAUSE I AM HIM

WHATEVER SHUT UP

So, here we go, I thought. Let’s get nutty.

The next one I crushed, I crushed hard.

As in, I pulverized it.

Okay, fine, cool. I read online that you can take a pick of some kind and extract the hickory goodness, so I did that — got a dental floss pick thingy, and began scraping meat out of the shells, scrape, scrape, scrape.

After about ten minutes, I had:

Okay, you know, that’s not good. That’s not a good ten minutes worth of effort. That’s like a… a shitty ROI, isn’t it? Urgh. I could’ve taken no time and just eaten an apple. I could’ve made a grilled cheese sandwich in half the time. This was not good.

My son said, “Can I have one?”

“That’s your college education right there, hands off.”

He looked at me and wandered away.

As the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race. I had started to figure out these nuts. They were a mystery, and I was the Hercule Poirot to solve them. I knew that if you put them in lengthwise, and applied increasing pressure, you could get the shell to crack without disrupting the golden hickory goodness inside. That was the secret, I thought. I had their number.

I continued to crack nuts.

One out of every three nuts would be intact.

The others would be pulverized.

So I would scrape, scrape, scrape.

My arm started to hurt.

My wife and son where in the other room, watching TV.

Their life was ongoing. Mine was here, at the dining room table, judiciously cracking nuts. Sometimes one would explode in the NUT VISE, and throw shards of sharp shell into my face. I would scream when this happened. “I am enjoying this,” my wife said, probably being serious.

I kept on. They didn’t understand.

NOBODY UNDERSTOOD MY GENIUS.

An hour went by.

I put a nut into the vice.

I applied pressure, squeezing, squeezing —

It popped open.

And maggots spilled out.

I screamed.

Two maggots writhed inside the shell.

“I AM XANTHOS,” the first maggot said, rising to greet me.

“I AM VORTHOX,” the second maggot said, coiling in the dark.

In gurgled simultaneity they said, “WE ARE THE COSMIC WORLD-EATER WORMS. YOU HAVE HATCHED US. WE ARE UNLEASHED UPON THE EARTH. NOW WE WILL CHEW THROUGH THE PLANET AS SURE AS WE WOULD CHEW TO THE HEART OF AN APPLE. BUT FIRST WE WILL TEACH YOU THE FIRST LESSON OF OUR KIND, WHICH IS THIS: HICKORY NUTS ARE BULLSHIT, AND DUDE, YOU COULD JUST GO AND BUY A BUNCH OF PECANS AT BULK, YOU FUCKING DINGLEBERRY. NOW LET US FREE SO THAT WE MAY CONSUME THE FABRIC OF THIS REALITY BEFORE WE MOVE, MAD AND STARVING, ONTO THE NEXT.”

“Is everything okay in there?” my wife asked.

“Yes,” I lied.

I scooped up the nut with the twin maggots and I quickly threw it outside, where I’m pretty sure the one dog ate it, so that’s cool.

My son said, “What were those?”

“Maggots,” I said, neglecting to mention their names.

“Oh, cool,” he said, and it was kinda cool, in a gross way.

“I think I’m done with these nuts,” I said to my wife.

“That’s probably for the best,” she answered.

I looked down at the nutmeats of my labor:

That was about… ohh, 15% of the total nuts I collected, if I’m being generous.

I thought, fuck it, let’s just roast them and be done.

Weary and hallucinating, I put them in the oven with some salt.

They were fine.

I ate them and had mild diarrhea.

Hickory nuts are bullshit, I’m going to go buy pecans instead.

But I have heard that if you peel the bark, and you smoke it, and then boil it with some water and sugar, you can make shagbark hickory syrup and —

My wife, from the other room: “No.”

Good point, lady, good point.

(Don’t tell her, but I already collected the bark.)

* * *

Having been desperate to rid herself of her psychic powers, Miriam now finds herself armed with the solution — a seemingly impossible one. But Miriam’s past is catching up to her, just as she’s trying to leave it behind. A copy-cat killer has caught the public’s attention. An old nemesis is back from the dead. And Louis, the ex she still loves, will commit an unforgivable  act if she doesn’t change the future. 

Miriam knows that only a great sacrifice is enough to counter fate. Can she save Louis, stop the killer, and survive? 

Hunted and haunted, Miriam is coming to a crossroads, and nothing is going to stand in her way, not even the Trespasser.

The 5th Miriam Black book — out January 23rd, 2018

Preorder Raptor & Wren: Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

52 comments

  • I am laughing and crying. This was the best of the best. I learned this same lesson, almost thought for thought, last year with chestnuts. I should say ‘re-learned’ because there was the year of the walnut shell candles. Oh, and the burdock flour. And, hey, pine nuts are expensive, but we live in a pine forest in Montana. How hard can it be…

    • Haha, I grew up having to collect and hull chestnuts because my father liked to eat them. What a monstrous pain. I do love chestnuts, honestly, but hand collecting them is a prickly painful terror. And a lot of them end up, well, maggot-eaten…

  • You made me literally laugh out loud. Again. Thanks for making my day better!

    My grandmother used to pick up pecans, with a little basket thing made out of a sort of spring. It had a long handle and if you pushed it against the ground the coils of the spring would separate just enough for the nut to pop inside. Then she would spend hours cracking them and separating out the meat, often in whole pieces. Everyone in the family had quart bags in the freezer of pecans she had shelled, along with bags of crab cakes made with crabmeat she picked herself. She made pickles and jelly and canned all sorts of vegetables. When fresh food wasn’t available to preserve she had her hand crafts, crocheting afghans, making beaded Christmas ornaments, braiding rugs, etc. I know how to do most of those things, but can only spend about 15 minutes on a project before getting bored. Have we as a society lost something precious?

    • We’ve either lost something precious, or we’ve thankfully moved away from acting out of desperation — a lot of what my Depression-era grandmothers did was because they were trained to do those things by the Depression.

      It’s probably somewhere in the middle — we could use a greater sense of self-preservation and curation, but maybe not to the point of hickory nuts because seriously, fuck hickory nuts.

      • I don’t know if you’ve already read them, Chuck, but consider checking out Samuel Thayer’s books on foraging. He’s a really talented writer and a plant wizard. He explains a lot about what you touched on when you made your ROI remark. As in, what can be collected the easiest and makes the best food.

        Granted, I’m not a doomsday prepper either, but It’s a handy/healthy excuse to get out into the woods and wander around in a daze for a while. Provided you avoid that mild diarrhea.

  • Woot! For what it’s worth, hickory syrup is sold at the farmer’s markets around here (Appleton, WI) regularly…and it’s EXCELLENT.

  • Chuck, good for you. At least you cracked the hickory nuts with some expediency. A few years ago, my wife and I collected some by the roadside. We put them in a wide, flat cardboard box that had held a case of soda, and we took the nuts into our dining room.
    Where we promptly forgot about them.
    Several days later, our daughter wanted some help with her homework. She wanted to film a puppet show she’d written. I got under the dining room table–the puppet stage–and put my hand down in something GOOSHY.
    Upon closer inspection, I found that I was literally surrounded by hickory-nut-fat maggots, wriggling all around the dining room floor. It was horrible, nightmarish, and the homework had to wait until we thoroughly scrubbed both the dining room and ourselves.
    Yup, I agree.
    Fuck hickory nuts.

  • Chuck you have simultaneously made my day and reminded me of days with my uncle picking and cracking peacans, him doing most of the cracking, and eating our fill on the delicious innards. Thank you so very muc

  • Do you know what else is cool? How figs are pollinated. If you eat figs, you should probably check it out, because nature is both cool and disgusting. And if you don’t eat figs, you should still check it out, because nature is cool and disgusting and it could give you valid justification for turning down a fig the next time you’re offered one by some random hippie.

    I feel you on the maggots, though. Ever since I found some tiny hard-shelled beetles consuming the inside of a delicious juicy medjoul date and turning its datey carbohydrate goodness into some sort of liquid sugar (let’s call it beetle syrup, because it probably was) I’ve split open all dates and given them a *thorough* investigation before tucking in.

    We don’t get hickory here, but every summer/autumn I do like to collect all the blackberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, strawberries and something akin to the bilberry, that I can find, and a sad number of them are infested with horrible worms (probably brain-worms. The kind that crawl in your ear and control your mind, Wrath of Khan-style.) Out of curiosity, did you try roasting the hickory nuts in their shells to crack them? I know it’s for chestnuts, but I’ve never even seen a hickory nut before.

  • Finally lured me out of lurking in the digital woods to join in the merry band of commenters dancing around the fire. After I stopped laughing I realized that I may have learned from this post more from about how to write engagingly than I have reading any intended ‘how to’ advice. Thanks for sharing, and I hope you continue taking those walks and getting diverted into strange adventures so we can beat more stories like this. Careful of any dark alleys though, darkness increases the size and strength of all multiverse consuming maggots and other creatures of their ilk. Thanks for this story, made my day.

  • No. We CAN go one worse. Moist CLAGGY Nutmeat.

    Loved that, made me laugh a lot. I’d stick to blackberries, but keep the ones you picked, y’know, because after the Trumpocalypse …

    Cheers

    MTM

  • Oh god, this is amazing. XD

    I used to live in Austin, Texas. There are a lot of pecan trees just growing in peoples’ yards, in the middle of the city. My family and I were fond of collecting the nuts up from our yard (and sometimes others) and eating them raw.

    To be fair, our pecans were a lot easier to crack than your hickory nuts, and while I never found COSMIC WORLD-EATING WORMS, some of those nuts were… not as good as others.

    I still prefer raw pecans to roasted ones, though.

  • I sat down to work on my book and made the mistake of checking my email first. And whoa, eating stuff you find in the woods, *and* maggots? Have you been reading my book? Weird.

    I wish I could eat nuts. Aren’t they a superfood? (What is a superfood?) Unfortunately all nuts give me a headache. Except for peanuts. But they aren’t really nuts.

  • I see your “no less palatable a phrase than “nutmeat,” …unless “moist”” and raise you “throbbing.”

    Moist, throbbing nutmeat.

    This is why Stephen wants to write body horror with me under an obvious pseudonym.

    Also, I commend your effort and persistance and wonder if you ground the nutmeats then soaked them in salted water and rinsed them a few dozen times in the waters of a blessed spring it would be ok to make bread or ashcakes or some such with the flour.

  • I was like – whoa – Chuck’s trippin on some kind of pennsyltucky nut-shroom. But I’m glad to see you’re just nuts. Love the cover. Miriam’s back! I miss that crazy gal!

  • I loved everything about this. I stick to berries, though. Easier to identify and way easier to eat. Immediate payoff. No world-eating maggots (usually).

  • I laughed so hard I couldn’t read for a minute (it was when the maggots were talking). My husband was in the next room saying “What?” and I couldn’t answer.
    Thank you for this.

  • FYI — You can make tea using spruce sprigs. It’s a lot easier than cracking nuts. And it’s not too bad. However, it might not be the source of good humor, like nuts are. (Perhaps that’s why they call them ‘nuts.’) Thanks for the laughs…

  • Laughed fit to bust here… my BIL is a forager. Spends hours checking his mushrooms (phnar! phnar!) and finding weeds that are supposed to be better than salad. Apparently. Like nettles…he assured us you could eat them by rolling up the leaves so the stinging hairs were inside and you wouldn’t get stung as you ate it. We all watched as he demonstrated…and stung his tongue.

    Incidentally, he’s the only person I know who took his kids on holiday and went to a Mushroom Museum…

  • ROFLMFAO! This from a woman who, as a girl, used to go out on our farm with my mother and collect miner’s lettuce, lamb’s quarters, and nettles, all considered weeds, all very tasty. Not to mention chantrelle and puffball mushrooms, watercress (collected from our ditch), and various herbs for teas and medicines.

  • We have Cobnuts aka Hazelnuts aka Filberts in the UK, specifically in Kent. You eat them when they’re green. I ate them as a child, which may explain my predilection for foraging ever since. I don’t go for Mushrooms, ain’t that dumb, but have eaten a lot of raw stuff. Word of advice…. don’t eat raw Rhubarb, the digestive effect is more than ‘mild’.
    Thanks for a great chuckle.

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