There are pine nuts on the ground this week.
There are other signs of summer's waning, of course. There is a freshness to the morning, a coolness to the afternoon breeze – sweet after the heat of the last few weeks - and the subtle, telltale, rain-patter sound of dropping pine needles. But it was the tawny-golden, paper-winged pine nuts that stopped me in my tracks and made me thrill for the coming autumn.
Because there were no pine nuts last year. Autumn of last year was a long, dry season, coming hard at the end of a long, dry summer, and a year that had no real winter to speak of. There was no ground water. Lawns withered. Wildflowers bloom briefly and faded in the heat. The shallow edge of the Lake turned desolate, drying out with a faint put persistant smell of rotting plants and stagnant water. There were little pockets of sickening pines, turning brown on the hillsides. By the end of the summer, all growing things had the aspect of refugees from a disaster, clinging to life on the edges of a dried-out world. Or perhaps that was just me, projecting my thirst for wet and cold onto the landscape around me...
And there were no pine nuts.
I cannot remember a single other autumn in which this happened. I’m sure that there have been others – perhaps even within my own lifetime – but I do not recall them. That lovely margin season between full summer, and the red-gold, life-scented autumn has always been marked by pine nuts. They come spinning down out of the sky, and land with the faintest little pat of a sound. By the middle of September, the ground is covered with them – neat, brown beads, plumb in their whirligig wings. We used to gather them as children, pulling the papers off gently, keeping the oval bit that grew around them intact; cracking them gently open between our teeth. They taste very little like the pine nuts one gets in the store. These are softer, sweeter – the pine taste both sharper and more subtle. They gleam pearl-white under their delicate aged-gold seed coats.
Old habits die hard. I still feel the childish enthusiasm for gathering the nuts and eating them as I go for walks, or sit out in my yard. They are a fundamental part of Indian Summer for me – as vital to it as the chilled-red-wine quality of air. The lack of them last year saddened more than the brown dust and brittle clover that had been my yard all the long summer.
But this year, there are pine nuts. Only a few so far. Summer has not quite let go its grip on us. Yet they are there, with their lovely little wood-bead and gold-paper casings. They still taste as sweetly of pine and the waning year as ever they did – sweeter, perhaps, for the year worth of wanting them. And perhaps for the sense of hope they engender. The drought is not over. Indeed, we may be fated to suffer it for some time more. But there is a promise of greener days in that embryonic life, a promise that with soft sun and gentle rain, they will become trees, and stand in the place of those that died of thirst. A promise that carries with it the sublimity of a Covenant - between Nature and God, and between God and Man: that if we just hold to our course, and be not afraid, He will bring joy and life to us again.