Falling Leaves and Pecans

When I was young I watched leaves start falling with mixed emotions.  The big pecan trees in our yard dropped what seemed like tons of leaves that needed raking. But they also dropped delicious nuts.

    By the time I was eight years old I was spending hours with a rake in my hands. Before that, I would help pick up pecans, dropping them into a small bucket then dumping it into a croker sack. We would go over the yard picking up pecans first, then rake the leaves into the ditch in front of the house.

    Times were much more peaceful back then. The quiet whoosh of the rake was soothing, unlike the high-pitched whine of leaf blowers now.

    After raking the leaves, daddy would take a fishing pole and knock the lower limbs to make more nuts fall so we had to go over the yard again to pick up newly exposed nuts as well as the ones he shook loose.  When I was a little older he would let me climb the tree and shake the limbs I could get to without falling with the nuts.

    The huge tree in front of the house was hard to climb since the lowest limb was way above my head and the limbs were so big they were hard to shake.  But four other trees were smaller and I could reach lower limbs, climb up to each limb, stand on it while holding tight to a higher limb and jump up and down.  It was effective except for the highest limbs.

    We always burned the leaves in the ditch.  I really enjoyed that part of the process.  I still get warm, good memories when I smell leaves burning in the fall.  We would stand around the ditch with our rakes, trying to avoid the smoke, and make sure the fire stayed in the ditch.

    When the pile burned down, daddy would take a pitchfork and turn the embers over, exposing lower leaves that had not burned from lack of air. This made sure they all burned.

    After the fire was mostly out I would get down in the ditch and rake around for pecans we had missed.  There were always some under the ashes and, although some were burned too much, many were roasted just right. I don’t think I have ever eaten a better pecan than those that were still in the shell and hot from the fire.

    We repeated this process three or four times each fall, filling many 50-pound sacks with nuts. We kept them separated by variety.  One tree had what we called “thin shell” pecans, nuts with very thin, easy to crack shells.  Another tree we called “peewee” pecans, small nuts that were half the size of the other trees.

    I hated picking them up since it took forever to fill a bucket. But for some reason they brought more money per pound than the bigger nuts.  We sold many pounds of pecans, taking them to a buyer in Augusta. We often had a half dozen 50 pound bags to deliver.

    Although we sold many of the nuts, we cracked and shelled many pounds for our own use.  All summer long we had sat around the TV at night shelling peas and butterbeans, but in the fall we did the same with pecans.

    Daddy would take the nuts and crack them with a nutcracker, then mama, Billy and I would shell them, Daddy could crack them so most of the shell came off easily but without damaging the nut.

    The goal was to get out whole halves.  The halves went into one big bowl while the pieces went into another, keeping them separate for different uses. The halves had to be worked on to get the thin bitter string out of the groves on top of the nut. We had special picks to scrape them out.

    Each night as soon as we got enough mama would cover a baking sheet with nuts, put them in the oven and roast them. While shelling them we ate the warm, salted nuts.

    I had a “pet” red ant bed in the ditch where we burned the leaves and I always worried the fire would kill them. But as soon as the ground cooled they would dig out of their bed and start working, clearing the tunnels and making a small circular mound.

    All summer I would kill flies and take them down to the bed and feed the ants. I loved watching an ant find the dead fly and carry it back to the tunnel. I could sit for hours watching them move dirt grains around and make their home.

    Although they often crawled on me, I never got bitten by one. These ants were big, much bigger than the smaller black ants that lived around the house and made smaller mounds.  I still do not know what species of ant they were but they fantasticated me.

    Back in those days simple things kept kids interested.  And we always had chores to do.  I wonder if any kids now have any similar experiences.