I can’t say I had any particular relationship with walnuts till a year ago. I knew of course that they grew on trees and that my dad had some on his little piece of land, I knew that I couldn’t eat them raw as I would immediately feel a burning sensation all the way down my stomach due to some sort of allergic reaction so they weren’t exactly on the list of my favorite food items. On the other hand, my mom would often put them in all sorts of cakes (in particular my favorite chocolate cake Reform) and occasionally mix them in raw form with cooked wheat which is very important in our culture, but other than that I didn’t contemplate much on this strange type of fruit as we perceive it in my country.
Famous poet from Montenegro, Njegoš, in his classic work “Gorski vijenac” mentioned an epic truth which goes more or less like this: “Hard walnut is a strange fruit, it won’t crush but it’ll break your teeth.” I think that he’s the most responsible for establishing the expression “hard walnut” we often use in our everyday speech, referring to a person who can’t be easily convinced and who won’t back off and change the attitude under pressure, someone tough enough to refuse to be “broken”.
I would also hear my mom complain every autumn about a giant walnut tree growing outside our apartment building, saying that it makes annoying noises at night when ripe fruits hit the hard asphalt, and that it leaves behind mountains of dirty leaves on the ground by the beginning of November.
That used to be pretty much everything when it came to me and walnuts. What I failed to recognize though was that I missed the essentials – I never learnt to distinguish walnuts from other trees by the shape of their leaves, I never collected a single fruit with my own hands from the ground and I never watched it develop in its hard green shell that in the end turns to black-brown in the process of ripening and cracks open to drop down its light brown stone-like product. Just like many other things, I considered walnuts merely something that I could buy or take and consume as desired, oblivious of how that consumption philosophy pushes us further and further away from nature that created and shaped all our lives.
Who knows for how long this could go on for me if my dad’s life hadn’t come to its end. Walnuts usually start ripening by the middle of September if the weather is favorable, which was the case last year. As my dad sat and lay on his deathbed in his bedroom after being discharged from the hospital as an “untreatable case” (there is no facility or trained staff for palliative care in oncology in Serbia, believe it or not) and sent home to our bare, medically uneducated hands to do whatever we thought we should to alleviate the pains and misery in his last days, walnuts kept popping out from their greenish-brown shells and hitting the asphalt under the bedroom window. Last days of death from cancer are among other things marked by huge changes in body’s physiology, which heavily impacts the brain of the dying person. People dying from cancer usually turn to themselves reliving distant childhood memories, fall in and out of consciousness and occasionally lose touch with reality and persons around them, until pains close in on them one more time with harder and harder blows. Changes in physiology and strong painkilling medication induce periods of delirium, infallible proof that the end is getting nearer and nearer. There were long periods when I could sit on the bed by my dad’s side, without him being conscious of my presence. Most of the time I couldn’t even just touch him as this provoked unbearable pains, so whenever I felt that he could at least communicate with me I would start whatever small talk that came into my mind. Times for big talks were over, it’s nothing like you see in movies with those important lines for special goodbyes – in death in real life it all gets pointless. Dad’s body had a strange tendency to rhythmically move with the sound of walnuts hitting the ground, so knowing how much he loved this fruit, several times I tried to ask him: “Dad, do you hear the walnuts falling down?” Absorbed in his thoughts he usually failed to respond, staring into emptiness. Once however, growing intensely delirious he replied: ” Yes, goats are falling down, too.” I remember staring at my dad in scary disbelief watching his distorted expression, horrified that he went totally nuts as (wal)nuts outside continued falling down and creating some highly ominous atmosphere. I hadn’t dealt with death from cancer before so I feared this stage very much, observing with intense fear how dad would swing from delirium to a perfectly normal state and back again in terms of hours. There was nobody to guide me or even just explain to me how this end of life enfolds, and from my experience it’s much better to be prepared for what you’re about to witness than to live in ignorance of foolish protection from the reality we all have to face in some form or another. Thank God there was at least internet by my side to help me recognize all the relevant signs in spite of my total refusal to admit that one life was about to be over beyond any repair. Life eventually ended with the sound of nuts cracking as they landed on the hard ground. The burial was prepared and awaited during horrible sleepless nights interrupted only by that familiar, ominous sound. Those hardest days that come after the burial were still marked by this more and more annoying tapping which threatened not to end ever again.
Then somehow as the tree exhausted all its fruits and autumn progressed into winter, somewhere along that path tapping stopped, but I failed to spot the exact moment when this happened. There was snow and silence, so cold and hard that I almost preferred to hear the familiar ground hitting sounds again. Winter turned into spring, strong summer heats chased away spring blossoms again, and finally the end of another August got nearer and nearer. I felt it in my stomach that was turning into stinging and painful knots again as I relived dates and events from the previous year. Memories were like needles piercing my skin, thousands of pains and moments of disbelief, real as if it all had happened the previous day, as if time had stopped and the year never elapsed, the year in which among other things I gave my best to learn all I could about walnut leaves, shells, fruit ripening. I would look at the tree outside the window and as I remembered the goats falling from the sky, my body would fill with intense fear. I dreaded hearing the sound of falling walnuts again and it seemed that I wouldn’t survive it without dad around. I almost begged the Heaven above not to hear that sound ever again, especially not at the time of anniversary. Strangely enough, it seemed that my prayers were heard. The unfavorable weather slowed down the ripening of walnuts and by September 12th still not even a single one hit the ground. After the anniversary, me and my mom went several times to dad’s cottage house and she “put me in charge” of collecting fallen walnuts and hitting down the ripe ones that were still on the tree. It felt awkward and I was reluctant to start, but once I did I never felt sorry for my decision. It’s not easy to spot fallen walnuts nor to track them when they bounce down from the tree. Each one you find gives you a small boost of happiness because you had a successful “nut hunt” as I decided to call it. As you analyze the ground around the tree you bend over and get up thousands of times, which gives you all the exercise your body craves for in today’s sedentary lifestyle. And on the top of everything, something strange started happening. Whenever I gave a close look along the paths I had frequently covered all my life in my neighborhood or elsewhere around the town, I would spot a walnut tree I walked by thousands of time not knowing what it was. This year was extremely prolific in terms of walnuts, so during this last month or so there wasn’t a single day in which I wouldn’t come home without at least 10-15 walnuts in my hands. Time worsened in last 15 days with the arrival of strong winds and rain, but it proved to be actually beneficial for a nut hunter like me – I would find myself in the middle of rain and walnut storm as winds and humid weather would shake the trees and make them shed the fruits. They would fall in dozens, hitting my head, hand, feet, rolling down the ground in my direction, literally following me wherever I went. One day three walnuts landed down from different directions and joined together to stop in front of my feet, as if something or somebody sent them to convey a message and help me make the final peace with these trees. Also, last year we didn’t find any walnuts at the cottage house as nobody went there due to my dad’s condition for more than 2 months, which means that probably somebody took them away. My mom had to buy them all year long for all memorial days for my dad, because they are traditionally mixed with cooked wheat prepared together with wine for the religious service. She repeated many times that my dad wouldn’t believe that she had to buy walnuts when we had two fairly big trees of our own.
This year it was all somehow evened out, because not only the harvest is really extremely abundant, but also it turned out that there was no reason for me to fear the sound of falling walnuts. Nut hunt turned out to be a happy task, a true way for me to preserve the memory of my dad. I could be wrong or not, but as my dad loved them so much I have a feeling that this was his gift and the way to say that everything is ok and that there is nothing to fear any more, that on the contrary we should be strong and brave hard walnuts fighting for our place in the world.
Happy nut hunt to all walnut hunters from my hemisphere!