With autumn fast approaching, it’s time to start winding down the garden and cleaning up in preparation for the coming winter. One thing I couldn’t help noticing over the past month is the enormous number of acorns being produced by the local oak trees. There have been some days where I have heard a near constant sound of nuts falling. My driveway is littered with crushed acorns (where I ran over them while backing out the car), half eaten nuts and the small brown caps, called a cupule, that usually are discarded by the squirrels. The lawn mower makes an interesting noise when it tries to grind up any that it comes across while I am mowing. I can anticipate finding tiny oak trees over the next few years in the flower garden, my raised beds and even in a few of the large flower pots that I leave dirt in rather than try to dump out.
This extravagant production on the part of the oak trees is referred to as masting. Mast is an old term referring to the fruit of forest trees. There is soft mast (such as berries, drupes, and rose hips) and hard mast (such as acorns, beech and hickory nuts). When one of these booms in fruit production occurs, it is usually called a ‘mast year’. In times past, farmers would turn loose their pigs to forage and fatten up on this windfall from nature. Peterson’s Field Guide for Eastern Forests suggests masting is likely an adaptation to escape seed predators. Trees usually will alternate high production of nuts and berries with poor years, waiting for the population of squirrels, chipmunks and other fruit thieves to drop, then producing a bonanza to ensure that at least some will have a chance to take root and give birth to the next generation of trees.
Regardless of whether it’s a good year or a bad one, animals depend heavily on these vital food sources to prepare themselves for winter when they will migrate, hibernate or rely on fat reserves to get themselves through the cold months. Providing a wide variety of hard and soft mast, if you have land available for it, is a good way to help promote biodiversity.
Humans (at least the modern day humans) do not rely as much on wild mast but instead produce their own ‘mast’ in the form of a wide assortment of domesticated crops. Right now in northern New Hampshire, it is apple picking season. Apple orchards are reporting a 14 percent increase in apple production this year helped by ideal growing conditions this summer, with good pollination and no late frosts. Apples are a type of domesticated pome fruit so a bumper crop of apples would not be referred to as a mast year. However, for anyone who loves apples and other fruits, the picayune botanical details are nowhere near as important as the flavor and freshness. I am partial to Paula Reds, and Macintoshes and prefer eating them out of hand. The local food coop provides a wide choice of locally grown products which spares me a great deal of driving time trying to hunt down local versions of my favorite foods. On Sunday, there is a farmer’s market in my home town which also provides a good assortment of local produce.
I also have several raised beds where I try out my hand at growing carrots, potatoes, peas, wax beans and a few other vegetables with varying degrees of success.
Animals have a very keen eye for our ‘mast’ production so it becomes a bit of an arms race to fend off hungry four legged neighbors long enough for us to get a chance to harvest all our hard work. Fences, chicken wire and predator scents in a bottle are all useful but have to be diligently maintained. Another possible method is providing alternatives for animals to turn to in the form of forest corridors and woodland preserves, helping protect our own food from being gobbled up (except by us, of course!). None of these strategies are perfect of course, but then no system is or ever will be. Ever since we first starting poking seeds into the ground in an effort to increase the supply of the foods we like to eat, a never ending battle has been waged with critters who discovered that foraging is a whole lot easier where humans live (and they plant such yummy stuff!). As long as the pillaging remains below a certain level, we have to accept that some of our ‘mast’ is going to wind up in someone else’s stomach and not waste energy pitching a hissy fit because one of our ‘perfect’ tomatoes or ears of corn has mysteriously vanished.
With the seemingly unending cornucopia of foodstuff being poured into our supermarkets by modern industry, it’s easy to forget (or never realize in the first place) that what nourishes us comes directly from nature and only from nature, not from a cardboard box or a microwave oven. Buying food grown locally or better yet, growing it yourself is an important antidote to the detachment fostered by prepackaged concoctions barely recognizable as food and requiring little or no preparation on our part. If you want to improve your sense of well-being, the earthy aroma of a new potato or sweet fragrance of a freshly picked ear of corn should tell you everything you need to know about what’s good to eat. No frozen dinner could ever do that. We are only as healthy as the soil our real food grows in. A mast year or a bumper crop of apples helps remind us that the earth has an enormous reservoir of vitality that will only continue as long as we support it by maintaining the land with careful farming techniques and ensuring land is always set aside for wildlife.
“Eating with the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance – is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living in a mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.”
― Wendell Berry