Brown chestnuts in the wood are cracking, are cracking,
Brown chestnuts in the wood are cracking beneath our feet.
The leaves of autumn, carried by the wind,
In monotonous circles, fall in a spin.
And this song in my heart whispers, whispers,
And this song in my heart whispers happiness.”
These are the words of a French folk song that I grew up with. It always pops up in my mind at this time of year. It talks of the end of summer in a melancholy and heartfelt way. And the tune that goes with it carries the sadness of the end of a season along with the deep happiness of nature. Autumn is one of my favorite seasons and, here in Goshen, its beauty is everywhere. Today, for example, the sun coming up in the east is showing off the brilliant changing tree colors against a steel gray western sky. The morning air is crisp and clear. The crunching of leaves and the gnawing of squirrels accompany me as I walk around the neighborhood.
But as the song suggests, my Belgian experience of autumn was all about chestnuts.
I waited for the school bus underneath a large horse-chestnut tree. In the fall, its large leaves and burrs would fall, covering the ground. While we waited for the bus, we would crack open the burrs and remove the large shiny seeds and polish them. I would always carry one in my pocket for good luck. Sometimes we would pelt each other with them until the school bus arrived and broke up the game.
But the real prize was the edible chestnut from the European chestnut tree, and only a distant relative of the horse-chestnut. On Sunday afternoons, we would often take walks outside of our town, down the backlanes and backroads, and here is where the chestnuts thrived. As we walked and talked, our feet would step on the already fallen spiny burrs and they would split open to reveal their fruit, shiny brown and drop shaped. We would stop and pick them up and collect as many as we could before continuing on our walk. There still is nothing that compares to the sound of the burrs cracking, and seeing that shiny seed. I knew that I had to handle the prickly outside to get to the goodness inside. And once we had gathered what we wanted, we walked home with our treasure. That evening, we would sit around the table with sharp knives and make two cuts in the shape of a cross on the flat side of each chestnut, throw them onto a pan and roast them. After a half hour or so, we pulled them out and, handling the hot chestnuts gingerly, we would peel back the outer layer and find the meat inside. Warm, with a hint of sweetness and a starchy texture, we would pop them into our mouths. It was a sort of ritual from start to finish that let me know that the days would soon be cooler, and rainier, and that nature was going dormant for a few months.
After many years in Goshen, I have learned new rituals of autumn. But I was pleasantly surprised numerous years ago when I found out there was one little corner of the county where I could go back to my older memories. Off of a county road, east of town, a couple of chestnut trees still thrive on the Weirich farm. One of them is at least 62 years old and still gives many chestnuts. Darrel Weirich, who lives on the farm, continues to gather and share them every year. Even though he’s kind enough to bring them to me to buy, I like to make a pilgrimage to see the trees and see the burrs and soak in the beauty of chestnuts. He and I share an enthusiasm that takes me back to my youth. And I love to hear the stories and the yearly roundup of how the trees are doing.
This year, I stop off for a short visit and tour with Darrel, looking up through the branches at the shiny leaves with some burrs still hanging, and then down to the ground where burrs lie burst open exposing their shiny smooth fruit. I pick a few of them to put in my pocket. Then I go home and, as darkness comes and evening falls, I make the cross on the chestnuts, roast them, peel them and eat them, while my mind travels backwards and I am once again walking the winding paths of my hometown. “And this song in my heart whispers, whispers, And this song in my heart whispers happiness.”