Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Chestnut Gathering

It was around twenty years ago when I first visited the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. I remember what the weather was like that day—cool and grey—and I wore a sweater and a skirt. For some reason, I remember my car being in the shop and I drove a loaner car, one with a much better sound system than my own, and I rolled into the museum parking lot with the music up really loud. Maybe it was a short day at work that day, because I felt like I was playing hooky. In other words, it was a really good day.

To enter the museum, I walked through a row of larger than life Rodin sculptures. Once inside, I had my choice to go to the left and see European art from the last couple hundred years, or go to the right and see older European and Asian art. I don't remember which section I went to first, but I do know I eventually found myself in the wing of European art from the turn of the 20th Century, stopped still in front of a painting.

The painting is large, about 5 feet by nearly 8 feet. Its colors are saturated: crimson, orange, gold,  brown, and black. Sawtoothed chestnut leaves litter the ground—the older ones red and overlapping, the newer ones gold and horizontal—all in a highly decorative pattern. In the forefront of the painting, three women gather chestnuts while two other women collect more behind them. The first of the three women in front kneels, taking a stone in her large Picasso-esque hand to use as a tool to remove a chestnut from its thorny burr. She drags a burlap sack of nuts she's collected. The second woman is upright. It looks as if she's walking slowly. She carries a tray of perfectly arranged chestnuts, and her disproportionate hands support the tray from above and below, like a gift. Behind her head, a break in the large trees creates a dome of light, framing her face like a gold leaf halo in a medieval illuminated manuscript. The third in the trio walks behind, slightly bent over, carrying a load of chestnuts in her apron. Unlike the other two, her hair isn't free, but covered with a loose scarf. Reminiscent of a religious procession, the trio remind me of the holy connectedness of work and nature and food. Foraging under these trees is a sacred act.

That first day I encountered this painting, I sat down on a bench in front of it and thought about it for a long time. I noticed the smoothness of the women's features and their long legs, the pattern of the ancient trees in rows, and the way the chestnuts on the ground don't succumb to the laws of perspective; they don't shrink in the "distance." I purred with joy in front of this painting, rubbing my soul against it like a friendly cat.

When I finally got up to look at the information plaque next to the painting, I learned its title, "Autumn: The Chestnut Gatherers." I had never heard of its painter, Georges Lacombe, before. The plaque explained that the model for the painting was a young woman, Marthe, who would become Georges's wife, and that the painting was the third in a four part series about the seasons commissioned by Marthe's mother, Gabrielle.

The woman who commissioned the painting and the woman who modeled for it share my not-too-common last name, Wenger.

Nowadays, a canvas-transferred print of that painting hangs, framed, over my sofa as the most prominent piece of art in our living room. I stare at it every day. I sit under it in the morning to drink my coffee and catch up on the news. At night, when we watch television, I relax under it with my feet in Scott's lap. That painting is part of what makes my house home to me, and it lives in a corner of my brain, always.

But, until this weekend, I had never actually performed the act depicted in the painting. I consider myself an aficionada of orchards, but I had never seen a chestnut orchard in person until Sunday, when I went chestnut gathering.

Skyline Chestnut Orchard is tucked away in the Santa Cruz Mountains between Palo Alto and Pescadero, between the bay and the ocean. According to the orchard's website, soon after the purchase of California in 1847, a Spanish settler moved up into the mountains and planted the oldest European chestnut trees. Presently, the property is owned by Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and managed by a farming family, the Johsens. They open the orchard every fall when the chestnuts begin to drop and run a farm stand where they sell chestnuts and chestnut (and other varieties of) honey.

Sunday, I drove down the peninsula and up the mountains, good music playing and the sunroof open. Scott and the kids were out of town, so I had the day all to myself, with nowhere I had to be other than exactly where I wanted to be. After I found the turnoff for the orchard, I parked and checked in at the farm stand. I followed the path to the trees, but instead of staying on the lower flatter ground, like the many families that were also out collecting nuts, I clambered up the hill under old gnarly trees. I waded through native blackberries, identifiable two ways: they have slender prickly thorns rather than Himalayan blackberries' scimitar-shaped deadly thorns, and their leaves turn wine and maroon in autumn. Under the tree canopies, I sifted aside golden leaves to find shiny loose chestnuts and split burrs about to release their smooth chestnuts. Below me, families speaking many languages laughed and helped each other. But, up by me, the only sounds were birds and chestnuts dropping from the trees. I moved from tree to tree in the gold light.

When I felt like I was done, I had collected three pounds of chestnuts and bought a jar of chestnut honey. That night, I roasted a few chestnuts for dessert and savored the fudgy, earthy sweetness.

The only reason I can head to the hills and collect chestnuts is because I live in the West, not a native home to chestnuts, but a safe haven when the rest of the chestnut population in the United States fell victim to two diseases, "ink disease" and "chestnut blight." Prior to the 20th Century, every fourth tree in Appalachia was an American chestnut, and it was a foundation tree in most other eastern forests. Now, all the established trees are gone, and what's left are sprouts coming from the living roots, trying again and again to grow before being inevitably felled by blight. Many, not all, non-native chestnut varieties are also susceptible to both diseases. Yet, mountain ranges and climate have protected the few chestnut trees planted in the West. I'm lucky to have seen old trees up close, to rake around under their leaves, to find their satin-robed fruit.

Here at home, sitting under the golden-haloed chestnut gatherer, a distant relative, I am three pounds richer in miracles. What should I do with them all?

For more information about American chestnuts:

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