Resistance is useless. The chestnuts are over-ripe and have been falling for two weeks now. If any are to be picked, today is the day.
This is an unusual year and where at other times my aunt and uncle might gather and process over a tonne of nuts, the season has been forfeited because of my uncle’s lingering illness and a forced focus on life above commerce. Today we’ve assembled as a small family group to collect a token amount, to register the experience and also to declare that the crop was not an entire loss.
At the sheds, before we’re turned loose to wander through the orchard with buckets in hand, my aunt checks our protective equipment and finds it deficient – ordinary gardening gloves are out, we need rubber gloves to have any hope of keeping out the tough prickles on the nut casings. Then we’re off beneath the trees.
Shade is thick beneath these twenty-year old trees, each striving to achieve majestic status but in practice a wide-ranging lot varying from a tall elegance to stunted disappointment and the occasional failure in the form of a stump and open space between the adjoining canopies. These trees have many years to go before maturity.
The ground is littered with fallen shells that promise pain for the unwary, each a bristling protection for a trove of brown treasure hidden within. The first nuts I collect are in a dry brown casing that opens with a wrench to one side and holds three chestnuts. There is a polished warmth in the rich brown of this fruit and a momentary fascination to examine them in the clear autumn sunlight, like a youth finding a first crystal on the path. The pickings, here, under the first tree are slim, however. Too few nuts yielded for the effort and pain. Another tree may prove better.
My uncle is walking around the shedding of his little farmlet as we work. He bought the ten acres two decades ago and planted the trees as seedlings he grew from the nut, then hand-watered until they were established. He keeps hens here, grows vegetables and fruit. Visits to oversee these activities are a daily pleasure for him.
This last twelve months has seen change, though. The creek that supplies his dam has dried up for the first time in living memory and he himself has had an illness that has kept him away for weeks leading up to harvest time, and so the routines of past years have been up-ended. The crop will be left to lie un-gathered while he walks the perimeters to re-establish contact with the things in his life that he values.
I’ve found a tree with large, mostly green casings that come apart a little easier in my hands and yield swollen, heavy nuts. The prickling cost of collecting is a constant and sharp needling into my fingers and through my trousers where I’ve kneeled or sat to facilitate the picking.
My aunt glances into the depths of my unfilled bucket and laughs a little before commenting that she routinely gathers two buckets of nuts to my uncles one. She is a pressure cooker of activity, always on the go and looking for the next thing that needs doing. These last weeks with my uncle in hospital in Melbourne have been even more stressful because she has not been able to stay with him. Twice-weekly visits have only added to her worry and she has been almost frantic in her efforts to keep occupied. My awareness of how difficult this recent time has been for her is heightened by the transparent relief that shows in her movements and the pleasure she is taking from today.
Each casing I open and empty is thrown behind me, out of the perimeter of the canopy of the tree. If this were a serious harvest, it would be important to have the area clear so that the following days new fall of nuts wouldn’t be confused with the already emptied husks. Glancing across I can see others using a variety of techniques to get at the nuts. Some are bending from the knees to get down to ground level, some are standing on the casings with their feet and scuffing them to break in to the nuts without getting pricked in the process. Each picker finds their own rhythm.
Frank Prem, 2008