It was the least I could do

Coming from California, we had the impression that black goldm meant oil. On moving to the Ozarks of southern Missouri, we found that locally the expression means black walnuts, and to our infinite joy we found several huge old trees growing on our hilltop property. That first fall, five years ago, when local newspapers advertised that various mills bought hulled walnuts by the bulk (they would hull them), I set out to seek my fortune, harvesting the gold. The lawn was covered with the cash crop, to the extent it couldn't be mowed.

Perhaps the nuts will pay the taxesm, I thought happily, tossing the fat green globes one by one into boxes. Well, if not the taxes, perhaps they will buy our Christmas gifts; at least this is good for my waistm. It was fortunate to have developed a philosophy, because some several thousand stoops later, when my harvest was taken to the mill, I received $6.24. Fool'sm gold, I muttered darkly, vowing never to pick up another walnut.

The following autumn, however, another factor had to be considered. ''I mow this vast pasture we call a lawn,'' my husband said. ''The least youm can do is clear off the walnuts.''

''But,'' I answered, ''there is no way to compare riding around on a little machine for a couple of hours with the endless stooping, picking up, and tossing of the walnut operation.''

''Your part of our lawn's upkeep comes only once a year,'' my husband replied , with the stern logic that has intimidated me since we met. Immediately, the walnuts had become somehow mine, and unwillingness to face this responsibility did not reflect well on my character. It was 12 months to one week for virtue, and I was hooked yet again by the moral ascendancy of my spouse. Unbeknown to me , the walnuts were apparently a symbol of ethical response.

Enjoying the morality of the endeavor, I now also enjoy walnut harvesting as making me a participant in the season. I no longer stoop, pick up, and toss in boxes but push the black gold into large mounds with the flat side of an old iron rake. Then, I shovel them into 50-pound dog food bags for transport to the mill.

Above me, as I work, the leaves of the walnut trees are bright yellow, the same leaves that appeared such a brief time ago in spring as a delicate green tracing barely seen along the dark silhouette of the tree. The yellow leaves are no canopy against the sky as they were in summertime when their thick greenness was a bulk in the air. Now, the nuts formed so quietly in that shield are the only green left as the yellow leaves fall and the cycle of life continues.

My favorite is a great old tree, growing 93 years ago when our house was built. The grass around it is marred by the tree's roots as the thick trunk claws into the ground for purchase on the earth. Lightning has struck it, the winds of tornadoes have come close, lanterns have been hung on it for garden parties. It is strange to think that when a Union Army veteran, Capt. Erben Casador Steele, built our house on the bluff over the west fork of the Gasconade River, this tree was young. It stood when the Steele family left and squatters invaded the captain's pride, when grain was stored in the blue drawing room, when the house was deserted, and when a series of new families came to restore it.

From beneath the tree, I can see the hills in all directions, painted with the glow of autumn - gold of more walnuts, the deep orange of sassafras, the mahogany reds, oranges, and warm browns of oaks, the crimson of sumac and hues of elm, beech, hazelnut, mountain ash . . . the rainbow of the dying year. The colors seem especially lovely in contrast with the emerald grass, strangely springlike after a recent heavy rain.

At first it seemed a heavy sentence, but now I cherish my yearly duty, harvesting the black gold of the Ozarks. Breathing the crisp, clear air of fall and looking at the colors of the hills, I know most truly that gold ism where you find it.

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