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The caws let us know the harvest is ready

Gathering pecans from the giant tree became a collaborative effort with the crows.

By Kathryn WilkensContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 9, 2008

Pecan season: Pecans flourish in warmer climates such as those of southern California, Texas, and Georgia, which produces the highest number of pecans in the United States.

National Geographic/Getty Images

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When preparing to take a shower, most people don’t have to rake leaves and nuts out of the stall. But I do in the fall when I use the outdoor shower my husband built next to the gardening shed, directly under the pecan tree. When I turn the water on, I keep an eye trained on the branches above lest a falling nut conk me on my shampooed head.

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The pecan tree was already huge when my husband and I moved to our home in southern California 30 years ago.

We’ve had it trimmed six times since then, but it’s still so tall that when I view it from the upstairs window, I have to crane my neck to see the top. In summer, it shades the entire backyard, providing a cool venue for picnics and family gatherings.

In winter its bare branches let the sky shine through. On a warm winter day, if my study window is open, I often hear high whistling sounds and look out to see dozens of cedar waxwings perched like tiny statues in the topmost limbs.

In early spring, new leaves emerge in tight clusters – chartreuse stars covering the light gray branches. Weeks later, catkins appear, hanging down like expensive earrings made of chains of yellow-green peridots.

By July the scimitar-shaped leaves have turned a deep green. In the late afternoon, when the breeze comes inland off the Pacific, the erect upper branches remind me of tall women dressed in green, doing an elegant “wave” as they sway to the east and then stand straight again as the breeze abates. The wind makes a sound like polite applause.

In summer the pecans appear, small as grains of rice in the beginning, and gradually grow plumper over the next few months. Periodically, a few crows stop by to check the nuts’ progress, then fly on.

Then, one day in November, the crows stay.

Their caws rend the morning silence as they muster their cohorts to my pecan tree. Sometimes as many as 40 birds descend, landing heavily in the branches, which bow under their weight. The sun shines on their glossy feathers, turning them silver and gold.

The crows come several times a day to pluck the ripened pecans off the highest branches. They yank off a nut with their beak, then carry it away – sometimes to the top of the telephone pole out front – to peck it open.

But for each nut they steal, they knock down several others, which fall with muffled thuds to the grass. Alerted by their calls, I’m waiting down there, earthbound, to scoop the fumbled nuts into my bucket. The crows crook their necks to give me a look as I take shameless advantage of their clumsiness.

Of all the seasons, I love fall the most because I feel like a participant in nature’s cycle, not just an observer. I gather pecans, remove the green hulls, and spread the nuts on drying screens.

Then I spend hours upon hours sitting outside in the low-angled sunlight, cracking the shells open. I look up often to watch pecan leaves drifting to earth. I rake them into foothills of yellow and brown, and my husband bags them to spread as mulch in a friend’s orange grove.

Raking is strenuous work, but – let’s face it – it’s fun, too, like waltzing around the yard with a rake standing in for Fred Astaire.

The pecan tree is a miraculous factory that annually converts sunlight, water, and minerals into an immense volume of leaves and nuts. It’s quite a system we’ve developed: My husband and I maintain the tree, which produces the nuts that the crows harvest for us after taking their fair share. Humans, crows, and tree form a happy triumvirate.

Only three generations ago, my ancestors were farmers in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. Maybe it’s that part of my heritage that keeps me from letting even one nut go to waste.

After wielding nutcracker and pick, I save every morsel. I freeze many of them in plastic bags to give as gifts.

Although my husband and I bake pecan pies and pecan sandies, we eat most of the nuts plain and raw, just as the crows do.

California’s seasons are more subtle than the ones I grew up with in the Midwest, but they are evident in my garden. Winter is camellias and navel oranges. Spring is when the rosebushes explode with color. Summer brings fragrant gardenias and juicy figs.

But no season is more unequivocally defined than fall, when raucous crows announce it from the swaying branches of my pecan tree, and I carry a rake with me into the shower stall.

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