The chestnut tree down the street from my childhood home was the towering, sprawling grand dame of the neighborhood. She resided in the yard of a house with so many turrets, twists, and peeking windows it seemed haunted, just as Boo Radley's had seemed to Scout. During spring and summer, kids in the neighborhood swung from the chestnut's many low branches, while I plucked flowering catkins from the edges of the sidewalk. The more daring kids scaled higher, and once a cat climbed so high she got stuck and we had to call the fire department to retrieve her. I never stepped much further than the sidewalk edge, afraid of the ghosts or demons I was sure resided within the failing white clapboards. I never stepped on sidewalk cracks either, always carefully toeing over those lines.
In autumn, I'd lean into the seedling and root-filled yard, its brambles and weeds and
detritus a tangled mess that sometimes obscured the treasures. But I knew they were there: the spiky shells with a shiny prize inside. I marveled at the lime green husks, firm and stubbornly sealed, that had fallen from the tree prematurely. But prying those shells apart didn't reveal what I was looking for. I was after the tan and pliable burr, which effortlessly opened to reveal a chestnut jewel, brown and smooth as tumbled sea glass. Loose chestnuts always hid within the weeds too, shaken from their casing, some damaged or broken or partially eaten by squirrels or chipmunks. Leaving behind the dregs and misfits, I'd open and then pile as many shelled chestnuts as I could carry into the folds of my sweater for the voyage up the street.
I collected these treasures in a shoe box I stored under my bed. I loved holding those shiny gems, running my fingers over their surface, or putting a couple in my pocket for safekeeping. I used them as place markers in imaginary games and when playing school with my dolls, only sharing my secret stash with my younger sister.
After school I liked visiting my friend Sarah, whose extensive collections were displayed on the top shelf of her desk. I admired the different silver dingers of her collectible bells, which produced various tones and pitches but was even more envious of the geographic flags indicating where she had purchased them: Niagara Falls, Nashville, Mount Rushmore, places that seemed so exotic and far from our small midwestern town. Sarah also had a new 64-pack of Crayolas, which she shared generously. My siblings and I squabbled over the 12 or 24-pack which didn't contain colors like Burnt Sienna, Apricot or Cornflower.
Decades later, I helped my children build multiple collections—-Legos and Beanie
Babies and Pokémon cards. We spent many hours on the floor, creating imaginative scenarios. On every vacation, we purchased souvenir bells and thimbles, like I'd always wanted, as well as an impressive magnet assemblage. Each September I bought new crayons and magic markers for school, even if the old ones were not yet worn out. Of course, my kids had the 64-pack of crayons, and when Crayola eventually expanded to the 128-pack, I bought that too.
The American chestnut tree of my youth has been nearly decimated by a fungal blight. Most of the mature trees that once towered over yards like my former neighbor's, are now gone. The blight does not kill the root system, however, so new shoots grow from the stump but rarely reach the height or crown of chestnuts from the past. Of the surviving trees in the US, most are not seed-producing and thus those spiky nut pods I remember, with the collectible jewel inside, are no longer easily found. The few remaining fertile trees are protected by arborists and agriculturalists. We once saw one in the Montreal Botanical Garden. It seemed mystical. Magical.
I have immutable tactile memories of my childhood chestnuts, gathered from a neighbor's yard, and stowed in a Jensen's shoebox. I recall their smooth and leathery texture against my palm, the nuts which I used for hours of play. I loved my chestnuts, but still pined for the 64-pack of crayons, the bell collection, the piles of stuffed animals, games, and puzzles lovingly purchased for my own children who never collected bounty from the earth.
Then I recall the wonder and joy of scavenging for and opening a spiky chestnut burr, revealing its shiny treasure. No one could save the trees, but I can save the memory of what the chestnuts meant to me. I hold the memory of Nature's collectible, rare and precious. Like a mystery. Magical, like Nature herself.
Diane Forman has published in Boston Globe Connections, HuffPost, Brevity, WBUR Cognoscenti, Next Tribe and elsewhere. Diane lives, writes, and teaches north of Boston. See more at dianeforman.com. Twitter: @WriterForman