‘On some day in late October, after a night of frost, the sweet-chestnuts come showering down like prickled apples, splitting against the boughs as they fall, opening to cream-coloured cups in which the chestnuts lie tight-sandwiched, like fat mahogany peardrops.’
Horse chestnuts have always been exciting to me. As a curious child, as a still curious adult, as a writer in search of tactile experience, as a nature lover who loves design curiosities, as a reader who thrilled to the Bronte motifs of dark foreboding…horse chestnuts deliver on all counts except edibility. (poisonous, my friends—not for cheerful fireside roasting!)
Having grown up on the west coast of the United States, horse chestnuts are the only variety of chestnut I am familiar with. The sweet chestnut of the Eastern seaboard—dear in our memories of early American lore along with hickory nuts and acorns, and poems of Longfellow—this chestnut, sad to say, was almost wiped out from our landscape. For more on this tragedy, and how you can help click here, where the American Chestnut Foundation is working on a solution.…or see below.
So join me as we go gather some horse chestnuts. We’re not taking Charlotte Bronte and her ill-fated horse chestnut tree along—no, there is no room in our skies for dark foreboding today. This crazy woman wants OUT of the attic….craving that Shakespearean irony of ‘one touch of nature makes the whole world kin’.
We have the fine author H.E. Bates to join us. I couldn’t ask for better company on a bracing autumn walk than H.E. Bates and Agnes Miller Parker.
H. E. Bates (HE) wrote many popular novels in his day, but it is his nature books that I love. Through the Woods, and Down the River have a special place in my library. (This is no small achievement in a library that is stocked with ‘special’ books!) But the appeal of HE’s nature writing is that they have been enhanced by the incomparable illustrations of Agnes Miller Parker. If you love woodcut illustrations, and names like Claire Leighton, Joan Hassall give you a little thrill or make you want to start carving something—anything—on a raw potato and dipping it in ink, then you likely have heard of ‘Agnes’.
Published in 1936, Through the Woods is a delight for the nature lover. Bates writes lyrically of his beloved English countryside, but at times, through the vitality of his prose, his words themselves are a force of nature. Agnes Miller Parker was a perfect collaborator with Bates, as both of them shared an intense love of the natural world, and a unique gift for rendering its beauty with, as called for, either delicacy or power.
Today it is Bates’ essay The Heart of Autumn that propelled me out the door under unquiet skies to go in search of horse chestnuts. I happened to know of a little grove of ancient trees, still untouched, on a busy city street. They are messy, awesome and even slightly menacing–once those prickly ‘conkers’ start falling, beware! But, oh, lovely trees…I am just grateful there is no city ordinance that has been enacted to thwack them down.
‘There is a great smell of autumn everywhere: great in the literal sense, an all-pervading, powerful odour, universal and bountiful, that changeless autumn formula of warmth and wet, of drip and decay. In the heart of the wood it is thick and drowsy, almost a fermentation. It drowses and drunkens everything.’
How true these words proved to be! That’s exactly what it smelled like…and felt like…as I passed a group of cheerful ladies wielding gas blowers, a sort of chatty High Noon version of yard maintenance whereby untidy leaves are corraled and horse-whipped into orderly piles…and dared to cross a squirrel turf war in full vehemence, acorns flying like mini-bombs…skirted the coffee shop where the unwished for latte called my name…finally to enter the cool grove of trees, carpeted with a thick detritus where birds, barely visible above the dark, mouldering matted leaves, scratched happily for worms.
‘With fungus and nuts and the spinning seeds of sycamore, the autumn reaches its heart. We talk of the height of summer, the dead of winter, the fullness of spring. But autumn reaches a heart, a core of fruitfulness and decline, that has in it the sweet dregs of the year.’
I found this comment on our accepted phraseology to label the seasons to be so interesting. It is true—no other season is so connected with the emotions as Autumn. Nostalgia…that crazy yearning in the heart to want to go back and redo, or reset some sort of chronometer; the sight of a pile of leaves is both a tug at the heart and emblematic of child-like innocence–the sweet unknowing–this is true no matter where we are in the world, or what nation we inhabit.
Where there are trees, leaves will fall, and children will play in them. Or collect them to be pressed in old school books—a crisp, faded oak leaf from the school playground—to be found years later in a quiet moment of discovery. (‘whatever happened to that boy with the crooked teeth and the frayed suspenders who used to collect acorns from the old oak grove and gave me my first present wrapped in pretty paper…?’)
‘Under the quiet skies the woods stand now with a kind of contradictory magnificence; gaudy and smouldering, flaring and almost arrogant, the stain of yellow and bronze spreading and deepening among the green, the copper flames of beeches firing whole sections of the woods with stationary heatless fires that look perpetual. Even the green now is burning. It has the yellow of flame in it.’
Oh, those ‘stationary heatless fires’! We love them so, and photograph them excessively. I also enjoyed his reference to the ‘stain of yellow and bronze’ coloration that marks the later autumn. It has already begun here in my region, but marks a welcome segue of color as we moved into winter. I wrote more about it in my post The Seasonal Mr. Rochester.
‘There is no flush of bloom. Wherever it is it is accidental, modest, an aftermath. It is symbolic in every way of autumn, which is not so much a season of itself as a remembrance and a foretaste of seasons. The year distils itself into October…….’
Just by reading HE’s words on the ‘flush of bloom’ lacking in this season, made me take closer note of the straggling, modest bits of color I saw along my path.
What colors did blaze were those of berries and leaves. The few roses, though looked weary. They are ready for their winter sleep; time to pass the baton to the cheerful berries of hawthorn, cotoneaster, and holly.
‘Not so much a season as a remembrance…’
‘Rain and sun and frost and wind and death act like balm, so that there is a miraculous clarifying and softening of everything, until the limpid days are like wine.’
Drink deeply of these limpid days, friends. Beautiful things like good books, beautiful art, and sweet chestnut trees should not be forgotten. Neither shall I forget the boy in frayed suspenders.
Notes for further reading:
It was tempting to quote in entirety this article on the vanished Eastern Chestnut;
‘Once upon a time’, the article begins, ‘the American chestnut was king…’
Fascinating reading, and the best news is —while not a fairy tale ending to this once upon a time story, there is a ray of hope: a breeding program underway to restore this beautiful hardwood tree to native soil.
Also, for more on how you can help, the American Chestnut Foundation is eager to give you some ideas. Even us West Coasties can have a share. Here you can donate, buy a beautiful poster, or purchase a refrigerator magnet carved from recycled chestnut wood..I kid thee not.
For more on HE: