by Letty Owings
Fall days in the Missouri woods are as near as it gets to heaven on earth. The grass chiggers have gone to wherever it is grass chiggers go after a summer of feasting on all flesh. Leaves are painted in the glory of autumn colors. Cool breezes take the place of scorching winds. Nut gathering replaces berry picking. Country kids go to school with hands dyed black from walnut gathering- not that stained hands add to the beauty of autumn, but the nasty dye goes with the free nuts.
When I see black walnut meats advertised in catalogues, I wonder who gathered and hulled them, and if somebody got black hands in the process. Walnuts grow encased in a green hull that oozes black liquid dye when it is removed. The green hull covers a rock-hard shell that in turn covers the nut kernel. Observe a moment of silence when you see black walnuts meats for sale in neat packages. They did not get there without effort and patience on somebody’s part. Hickory nuts do not ooze liquid around their husks, but the shells are so thick and hard and the kernels so small, they require more energy spent than they repay in calories. Our family always had a container of cracked nuts waiting to be hulled during the long winter nights. Idle hands had no place in farm living.
Along our drive near the house stood two mighty trees, a black walnut and a mulberry. The walnut tree provided nuts to add to those gathered in the woods, but the tree produced more than fruit. Every year, on a certain date in summer, walnut worms, caterpillars of an ugly sort, covered the leaves. Their invasion faded away only after they left the tree nearly naked of leaves and the ground below covered with dead worms and their droppings. This disgusting mess is always associated in my memory with black hands and walnut kernels. We ate a few, but wild mulberries leave much to be desired in flavor and texture. Wet cardboard is about as tasty.
Winter nights lighted by one coal oil lamp provided time for picking wool and seeding cotton. Most cotton was grown in the deep South where the seeds were extracted by a cotton gin. Eli Whitney’s invention had changed the southern culture. We had no machine to seed the cotton, so we picked them out by hand. I cannot fathom how entire cotton crops on the plantations were at one time freed of seeds by the work of human hands. In addition to seeding the cotton, we picked wool. When our sheep were sheared by a Old Ni**er West,* the fleece was thoroughly washed in a tub of suds to remove some of the oil and the smell. Plenty of both remained. The fleece had to be “picked” by hand. That meant taking a small wad and pulling it patiently all apart until it was buoyant and soft. Only then could it be filling for our comforters that warmed our beds in winter. Store-bought blankets were not yet available or affordable.
At one time my dad bought a wool carder, a gadget that consisted of two small boards with nails protruding from the surfaces. The idea was to put some wool on one board and rub it with the other. It was a total fizzle, so we were back to picking with our hands. I wonder what we talked about the long, dark nights. I do not remember my brother ever being in the picture. He was eleven years older than I and often gone from home to work.
When it was time to blow out the lamp to save kerosene, put the wool picking aside and go to bed, we each got a sock and lined up at the kitchen stove to put a warm iron in the sock. Then we hurried off to the unheated upstairs bedrooms where the water froze solid if we took a glass along for the long night. I never felt in any way that we were underpriviledged or exceedingly poor or uncomfortable. Why would I? I was loved and cherished and knew no other way of life. I do not now in any way romanticize it, but life goes on without lights at the touch of a switch and water coming out of a faucet.
When I look back at my young years on the farm, my heart goes out to my parents who sacrificed and slaved to give to the next generation a more comfortable life than they had. In our small circle of neighbors and kin, I knew not a soul who did not see that as a goal. If they had been asked to define or describe what they meant by a “better life,” they would have mentioned debt-free ownership of land, food in abundance, and a supportive church community. Travel and free time and ownership of “stuff” would not have made the list. Does this mean people were “better” than they are now? I think not at all. Perhaps I am an optimist, but I think most folks today still have some of those same values. Television and print media emphasize the negative and the terrible. Good works and honest living do not sell in a sensation saturated society.
*The neighbor was known by that name at that time- there was not the awareness on everyone’s part that there is today, that the n-word is a derogatory slur. My grandfather (Letty’s father) did forbid the use of this word, however, to refer to people in a general way.
Creative Commons photo courtesy of meriko borogove on flickr