Henny Penny has been much on my mind lately. No, it's not the stock market or falling home prices. Nothing so metaphorical has drawn me back to that anxious chicken in Joseph Jacobs's classic fairy tale. It's the acorns. My sky is falling.
I live in Bethesda, Md., on a ridiculously tiny piece of suburban land. But my neighbors and I are blessed with many 100-year-old oak trees, slender giants that reach up more than 120 feet. They dwarf our houses and remind us that we're living in what used to be one of America's richest forests. The responsible men in the neighborhood, the ones who'll bore you about the importance of power-blasting your vinyl siding every year, grumble about the danger of our trees. "One of these days," they warn with a hint of disgust, "a storm will come along and blow these oaks down on somebody's house." It's terrifying and a little exciting, like living next to Vesuvius, but without having to wear a tunic.
The oak trees toy with us every fall. But once every four to seven years – no one's discovered a reliable pattern – we get what's called a "mast year," a superabundance of nuts. The acorns fall by the thousands, covering the patio and sidewalk with brown marbles and sending the squirrels into fits of hoarding. On cool nights with the windows open, we can hear the acorns dropping on cars – ping! ping! ping! – little acts of arboreal vandalism, mostly harmless, but a warning nonetheless: "Look out below!" With a mild wind, the ammunition rains down on the skylight in our bathroom like dry hail.
As boys, my friends and I were experts on the perils of falling objects, particularly small, innocuous objects rendered lethal when dropped from great height. None of us had actually seen the Empire State Building, but it was the usual site of our thought-experiments. We all "knew," for instance, that a quarter – no, a penny! – if dropped from the top of the Empire State Building, could kill a man. What's more, this penny would then continue on into the concrete sidewalk – for 18 inches! Like politicians, we knew that specificity made our outrageous claims more plausible. I remember marveling that anyone would dare risk living in a city.
Later, in high school physics we learned about acceleration and its enemy, "terminal velocity." That "terminal" sounds deadly, but actually it's salvation for New Yorkers and those of us who live beneath giant oaks. Air resistance keeps pennies and acorns from speeding up until they become lethal. Still, old childhood terrors can be stubborn. Every time I'm bonked on the head by an acorn, I'm startled – and grateful to be alive.
In this regard, Henry David Thoreau was even more enthusiastic. "It is encouraging to see a large crop of acorns," he wrote in his journal in 1852. To him (and the squirrels), this was bounty from heaven. He tried boiling the acorns as the native Americans did, but he preferred eating them raw. That's a bitter meal for most of us; acorns contain a chemical called tannin that's used for tanning leather. But apparently Thoreau enjoyed the taste: "Now that I have discovered the palatableness of this neglected nut," he wrote, "life has acquired a new sweetness for me." That's pure Thoreau: Sometimes I think he sounds like a man who's been hit on the head by a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building. But other times, I realize he's seeing everything just right.