The Lonely Hickories


Along the one lane country roads in our county, the traveler encounters an occasional roadside tree, all by itself at the edge of the endless fields of corn and soybeans. The casual passerby may see nothing unusual about the trees but those of us who have lived here almost as long as these trees have, think of them as quite remarkable. They stand as monuments commemorating the passing agrarian life we cherish.

These trees are hickories, already bearing when I was born seventy some years ago. To understand why they are precious, visualize this landscape when these trees first sprouted at least a hundred years ago. Much of this land was originally forested, and was still in the process of being cleared. All through the 20th century, more trees vanished every year. By the time I worked in the fields, there were still a few sentinels of the old forest dotting the grain fields and pastures. They were left there mostly for shade. In those days farmers spent a lot of time in the blazing sun, not in tractor cabs, and all of you who have felt the July sun bearing mercilessly down on you know what a pleasure it is to be able to rest a bit in the shade. Worth losing a little bit of corn for. A few trees in the pastures were spared for the same reason— shade for the livestock.

One by one, these silent sentinels from the past were cut down or died. It was not much of a bother to dodge a field tree with two-row equipment, but when corn planters grew to the 12-row, 20-row and 30-row size, dodging a tree could mean that many crooked rows or double- planted rows, two things no corn farmer can abide.

Finally, today, only the lonely hickories at the edges of the fields along the roads remain (see photo). They are bothersome to farmers too, and to understand why they remain, one must know a bit about hickories. Rarely do you find two of them exactly alike in the woods. They do not come true to seed. Two next to each other can have quite different nuts in size, shape, thickness of shell, and ease of nutmeat extraction. Only a few specimens have really good nuts for fast and easy cracking. So when the forests were cleared away, farmers deliberately left the best hickories, since the nutmeats were highly prized for table use back when people could not or would not buy nuts in stores. Invariably, the old trees that still stand along the roads have been spared for a hundred years because they bear the choicest nuts.

Farmers steeped in the old culture know this. Even though they may not themselves gather the nuts anymore, they remember how Momma and Grandmother treasured them. They cannot quite bring themselves to cut the trees down. They continue to honor their ancestors and the culture that bore them.

Every year nut-lovers who know the secret of these trees stop along the road to gather the nuts. They are always older people. They mostly live in town now, retired, but they remember the rural life of their youth. For them, for all us who love the taste of hickory nuts, gathering them has become a kind of ritual. We spend fall evenings cracking and picking out the nutmeats for baked goods that we give for Christmas presents to younger generations too busy to know the pleasure of a hickory nut pie.

I have planted nuts from the lonely hickories on my land in the hope of keeping them going until another human generation comes along that might appreciate them again. Some of these young trees have started to bear now— it generally takes about twelve years from sprouting. Since they don’t come true from seed, mine produce nice nuts but not quite as choice as those from the parent trees. At least so far. But many of mine have not come into bearing yet.

As the lonely hickories slowly die off, few mourn their passage because the mourners are also dying off. But I have hope. Our neighbor, right across the road, has an ancient hickory in his yard along the road that produces excellent nuts. One of my young trees comes from a nut from his tree. As I passed his house last week, I saw a wonderful sight. A group of young people were gathering the nuts. Perhaps I do not need to mourn. Perhaps a hundred years from now, people will still be gathering hickory nuts— in what was once my yard.


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I used to pick up hickory nuts and walnuts when I was a kid. My favorite were the hickory nuts. My dogs favorite were the walnuts. She would come walking up to me with a walnut in her mouth and expect me to crack it open for her so she could eat it and I did. She was the only dog I’ve ever seen the loved walnuts.

I have known of red tails attacking chickens. Seems to happen when the birds are migrating, not from the local hunters. Either keep the chickens under a net, near shelter or keep them away from a spot where the hawk can sit on a perch and plan.

I have a 5 gallon bucket of pecans in my dining room. Same thing. Trees by roads growing all alone. Brought some home for seed but I’ll probably graft on the sprout.

We’re in our 30s with four small children. Wonderful fall day picking up pecans where the clever farmer had kept the grass mowed.

Mom and Dad are both gone. We lived back a long lane with many hickories along the drive. Mom walked that lane to pick up the mail every day she could and on the way back would collect the hickory nuts when they fell. Dad learned to hang them in the workshop in a wire basket from the rafters where the mice couldn’t get to them (sometimes). In the winter he’d start a small fire in the shop and crack a pan-ful of nuts to take in to Mom. She would sit at the kitchen table with the snow howling in the background, picking out the meats. Today I pulled the last little bit of nuts I’ve saved for too many years from the freezer … the last ones she picked out. I picked through them to avoid some shells and each little bite reminded me of her. We have no good hickories here, but Andy collects the black walnuts and courageously carries on the tradition of “cracking and picking”. Many thanks for a wonderful article!

I am happy to read the short phrase ‘hickory pie’. A few years ago my in-laws gave me a bagful of hickory nuts they claimed came from a roadside rest stop in Oklahoma. So I dutifully took them home and began cracking & picking the meats to make a pie with an adapted pecan pie recipe. I began at 8pm one evening, and it was 3 in the morning before I had 2-2/3 cups of tiny hickory fragments for my recipe. I now have great respect for a good hickory tree as compared to an ordinary one. It happens that just this fall when hunting paw paws in the woods, my friend & I came upon an excellent hickory tree…

This writing of yours brought back long-forgotten memories of gathering butternuts for my mom to use in fudge. We used to dry them on the roof of the rabbit pens till the husks came off, them break them with a hammer to get at the buttery meats. They were so good. Thanks for the memory jog.

I really appreciate this particular post of yours, Gene. It makes you feel like a kindred spirit. You see, every fall I gather up the best walnuts and hazlenuts I can find, and plant them in largeish pots. When they sprout in the spring I either plant them or give them away to friends.

Your post also brought back memories of gathering wild hazlenuts on the way home from school as a child and cracking them with my teeth (ouch!) or a handy rock. I used to love doing that.

Yup, you are right. Being a fairly young folk, its hard not to be too busy to enjoy such things. It is hard not to work while its to be had. This is a lesson I learned from my friends that emmigrated from Romania where the economy was not nearly so great. In the event that our economy does not maintain even current levels of prosperity and or employment, I can’t figure this to be a terrible choice so long as the wealth isn’t wasted.

Love the tree lore and the responses from The Hickory Tribe…

Yes, Russ, what a lovely picture. And Aunt Elner, persimmon cookies with black walnuts sound heavenly.
A few of you commented on my remarks on another blog saying that red tail hawks do kill chickens and more than rarely as I stated. I will never never never again believe what I read in “the books.” Red tails have not bothered our chickens probably because they have lots and lots of field mice to hunt. Another possibility is our big old rooster. If he thinks our cats are stalking the chickens (they never are) he takes out after them like a dog would. Very comical. The cats are scared of him. Maybe he keeps away the red tails. Gene


I always wonder about rhubarb, the same way you are in awe of the hickories. My father loved and nurtured rhubarb. He well remembered how prized it was after a long, hard winter to have something fresh from the earth, like a homegrown tonic. I remember him showing me the two things that always mark an old farmstead: lilacs and rhubarb. My generation doesn’t have that respect for rhubarb and maybe the next generation will totally lose touch with that wonderful plant, but then again, maybe not if this Depression continues.

What a lovely piece of writing; thank you! So many times, I will be reading one of your books or columns, and they will jog a memory for me.

When my grandparents moved to their last home, Grandpa planted two hickory trees in the back yard. As a child, I helped gather those nuts, and helped Grandma pick the nutmeats from the shells. While Grandpa passed on in ’70, Grandma lived until ’86; after her passing, their small farm was sold to an Amish family. The house has been added on to, to the point that I hardly recognize it, unless I approach from the west – where the hickory trees remain standing in the back yard. Perhaps I’ll take a drive up north someday soon, and see if I can talk Dan’s out of a few hickory nuts to bring home and plant.

I live on the farm my parents bought when they found out they were expecting me. In the east side yard are two black walnut trees that were small saplings when Mama and Pop moved here. My mouth waters just thinking about Great Aunt Ollie’s persimmon cookies with black walnuts, Mama’s black walnut divinity, and Miss Opal’s black walnut taffy; all made with walnuts from those trees. Happily, I don’t have to plant more of them, as the squirrels have done a good job of that on their own. Now, if they’d just do the same for the sugar maples that Mama and Pop planted in the front and back yards…

If we can just keep some going, whether it’s hickories or black walnuts or wild plums or even those pernicious blackberries that would take over my place in a minute… I believe there will be gatherers (Russ, that’s a beautiful word picture you’re painting!). Think of all the heirloom plants and animals we have now because someone, somewhere, tried to make sure there would be a piece of their world for future generations. Keep on planting, Gene!

What a beautiful post. If I had any talent as a painter I would immediately begin working on “the gatherers” – an older couple, vehicle parked along a lonely country road by an old hickory, gathering nuts while holding hands. Beauty and sadness and hope are a very powerful mixture and you mixed them well. That picture is very vivid to me thanks to your words.

Thanks! Great article! Times are changing, one day people will be haversting nuts from your yard. I truly believe that.

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