The Acorn Reader
The Acorn Reader About eighty years ago, a builder purchased a pie-shaped slice of land densely covered by towering oaks and spikey pines. He only cleared the trees that were necessary to carve out a space for his summer cottage with a fieldstone fireplace. Years later, he cut down more trees at the back of the cottage, making room for a deck. An imposing young oak with a thick trunk was spared, despite its intimate proximity. The tree would grow huge and dwarf whatever was in its path, but then, no one wanted to part with the umbrella of shade it would drape over the new deck. Fifteen years ago, my husband and I retired. We moved to the North Fork of Long Island and bought that summer cottage. By then, it had been expanded and been converted to a year-round house, but still nestled in the oak and pine forest. Shortly after moving in, I was rummaging in the old one-car, wooden garage that stood, with a slight lean at the back of the yard. Tucked in a dusty corner, I found a remarkably preserved 8×10 black and white photo in a wood frame with thick clear glass. It was a picture of the rear of the cottage after the trees had been cleared for the new deck, which hadn’t yet been built. What an enchanting discovery. I savored this unexpected window into the past. How had this photo remained so vivid out here in this damp garage? The picture’s back was covered with brown paper, on which the date 1939 and the name, Oak Gem, were printed. I walked out of the garage and held up the photo, comparing the view then to now. The cottage was now a house, some of the trees were gone, but many of the oaks and pines had endured. None had prospered as well as the massive oak, with its deeply creased, elephant-hide bark, that now towered over the deck. Summer was in bloom and I was grateful for the cooling comfort of the tree’s enormous shadow. Several years later, a warm spring arrived early, and the tree released copious amounts of feathery seed fronds that exploded into pollen dust upon impact with the deck. My husband sneezed and coughed for weeks until the fronds ceased and a good rain washed away the last of the yellow dust. Thus began my husband’s campaign to take down the tree. “It’s dangerous because it’s so near the house,” he insisted. “It would take an earthquake to bring that tree down,” I countered. “I hate all that junk it drops,” he said. “I’m sorry about your sneezing,” I said, “but this year was unusual. The tree is so magnificent I can’t bear the thought of a summer without its shade.” That year, right after Independence Day, I noticed that the deck was littered with baby acorns. It seemed early, but the previous year’s crops hadn’t made an impression. The acorns rained down, growing and growing until, by September, they were crashing onto the deck. We stayed inside when breezes shook the branches, fearful of acorns the size and weight of small rocks. I swept the deck constantly, using a shovel to clean up the heavy, foot high piles that accumulated in the gardens. I told my friends and family how huge this crop was compared to previous years. They politely asked why I was so excited. “It must mean something about the food supply for the coming winter.” I am a cold weather addict. There are pictures of snow scenes hanging on the walls in my house. I like wearing sweat pants and soft, long-sleeved clothing while I fill my chilly house with the aroma of baking bread. I enjoy light deprivation, taking pleasure in the coziness of lamplight when dark descends by 4:30. A good winter is so long and cold that I almost begin to look forward to spring. That winter was a doozy. Bitter cold, howling winds, three separate storms, each dumping a foot of snow. Often, during that long, wonderful winter, I stood in the kitchen, staring through the glass sliders at the snow covered deck. I remembered the abundant acorn crop and wondered if the old oak had predicted this bitter weather. This idea so intrigued me that, the following summer, I watched for the arrival of the acorns. The first tiny few fell during the heat of mid-July, giving me a rush of excitement. I noted that they arrived later than last year, and their numbers were fewer. After collecting acorns every week, I reported to everyone that the acorns were average this year. They smiled at me. But, the winter was average – not terribly cold, with only one small snow storm. After years of reading the acorns, I knew that the tree was more accurate than the “Farmer’s Almanac.” If the acorns arrived early, and the crop was large and fat, a wonderfully mean winter was on the way. My husband did not share my joy and had no interested in what the tree was predicting. But a dear friend, whose passion for cold weather equals mine, wanted a regular acorn update, for she was a believer. My family laughed, dubbing me, “The Acorn Whisperer.” “You do remember the tree predicted this, right?” I queried the unconvinced when a winter was bitter and long. One spring, a few years later, a squirrel built its nest at the top of the tree, making its presence known by tossing down half-eaten acorns every morning and late afternoon. For dessert, the furry-tailed rodent scurried down and wandered the deck, nibbling on discards, leaving behind little turds. I made jokes about the size of the squirrel’s appetite. The following year, another squirrel arrived. After that, they fought and chattered and chased each other up and down the tree. By late summer, we wished for an awning, not for shade, but for acorn protection. Afternoon BBQs became a battle zone, sending us scurrying inside to avoid being wounded. Our guests laughed. We didn’t. A pest exterminator confirmed my fear that as long as the tree stood, we would have squirrels. This past spring, after more than a decade of cleaning up the leaves on our pie-shaped plot, my husband and I hired someone to do it. Our desire to spend hours raking had passed. “Just for the fun of it,” my husband insisted when he asked the landscaper to include the cost of cutting down the old oak in his clean-up estimate. I insisted it would cost too much because the size of the tree. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as expensive as I had hoped. Armed with his new data, my husband cited his growing list of complaints: pollen, acorns, the squirrels and their poop. My defenses were slipping, and in a moment of regrettable weakness, I agreed to the sacrifice. As the words left my lips, I felt remorse. With a heavy heart, I brokered a deal that the oak would be allowed to deliver one more crop, my last opportunity to read the acorns. This past summer, baby acorns fell in early July, littering the deck w/their tiny bodies. They quickly grew large and fat, and I told my winter-addicted buddy that it was going to be very cold, snowy or both. As I expected, unusually cold weather arrived in early December. Three weeks before Christmas, on a grey morning, the tree was scheduled to be cut down. I went shopping that day, unable to witness the killing. As I wandered through T-J-Maxx and Home Goods, two of my favorite haunts in Riverhead, all I could think about was the tree. Reluctantly, I returned home by mid-afternoon. There was nothing left but a massive, ground-level flat stump, sawdust, and several deep impressions in the earth where pieces of the tree had fallen. Now, when I walk past that stump, I apologize to the tree for taking its life. I’ve never mourned a tree before, and am surprised by the depth of my sadness. This morning, two days after the dawn of a New Year, a swirling white show is performing outside the glass sliders in my kitchen. Giant snowflakes tumble down, and all the bushes, small trees, especially the cars, are transformed into rounded gnomes like those in a fairy tale. I heard the plow scrape through during the night. A shiver of delight runs down my spine at the site of the 21 degree reading on the thermometer hanging on the deck railing. Putting my forehead against the cold door, I stare at the empty space where the tree used to stand. “You were right. Again,” I mumble, my breath creating a small circle of fog on the glass.