Heat waves shimmer above the grasses, the air heavy and white and ringing with the buzz of cicadas. The boys have been shoeless all summer long, but even so the dry September stubble of 1895 pricks their feet as they trot across the sunburned prairie, lifting their heels like grass dancers. Just young willow whips in faded dungarees and nothing else, ribs showing beneath narrow brown chests as they run. They veer off toward the shady grove where the grass is soft and cool underfoot, flopping in the tall grass with loose-limbed abandon. They rest for a few moments in the shade and then spring to their feet, palming grasshoppers for bait.
The fishing poles are right where they left them, leaning up against an old cottonwood. They hook the grasshoppers through the back and throw out a line while the silt of the creek bottom oozes up cool between their toes. But the water hardly moves in the paltry channel spared by drought. Nothing’s biting but a few mosquitoes. After a bit, the prospect of a fish dinner seems as thin as their bellies, growling beneath those pants held up with twine. Looks like nothing but biscuits and red-eye gravy for supper tonight. Again. They hate to go home empty-handed and disappoint Mama, but even a dry biscuit fills the belly.
The land here, along the Canadian River, smack in the middle of Indian Territory, is a rolling savanna of grass with groves of trees in the bottomlands. Much of it has never been plow broke, as no one has a plow. The boys follow the stream from grove to grove, back up toward the home place on the allotment, hoping for a deep pool somewhere, finding nothing. Until one boy stubs his toe on something hard and round hidden in the long grass.
There’s one and then another, and then another — so many he can hardly walk! He takes up a hard, green ball from the ground and whips it through the trees at his brother like a fastball as he yells, “Piganek! Let’s bring ’em home!” The nuts have just begun to ripen and fall and blanket the grass. The boys fill their pockets in no time and then pile up a great heap more. Pecans are good eating but hard to carry, like a bushel of tennis balls: the more you pick up, the more end up on the ground. They hate to go home empty-handed, and Mama would be glad for these — but you can’t carry more than a handful.
The heat eases a little as the sun sinks low and evening air settles in the bottomland. Mama hollers for them and the boys come running, their skinny legs pumping and their underpants flashing white in the fading light. It looks like they’re each carrying a big forked log, hung like a yoke over their shoulders. They throw them down at her feet with grins of triumph: two pairs of worn-out pants, tied shut with twine at the ankles and bulging with nuts.
One of those skinny little boys was my grandpa, hungry enough to gather up food whenever he found it, living in a shanty on the Oklahoma prairie when it was still “Indian Territory,” just before it all blew away. As unpredictable as life may be, we have even less control over the stories they tell about us after we’re gone. He’d laugh so hard to hear that his great-grandchildren know him not as a decorated World War I veteran, not as a skilled mechanic for newfangled automobiles, but as a barefoot boy on the reservation running home in his underwear, his pants stuffed with pecans.
The word pecan — the fruit of the tree known as the pecan hickory (Carya illinoinensis) — comes to English from indigenous languages. Pigan is a nut, any nut. The hickories, black walnuts, and butternuts of our northern homelands have their own specific names. But those trees, like the homelands, were lost to my people, the Potawatomi. Our lands around Lake Michigan were wanted by settlers, so in long lines, surrounded by soldiers, we were marched at gunpoint along what became known as the Trail of Death. They took us to a new place, far from our lakes and forests. But someone wanted that land too, so the bedrolls were packed again, thinner this time. In the span of a single generation my ancestors were “removed” three times — Wisconsin to Kansas, points in between, and then to Oklahoma. I wonder if they looked back for a last glimpse of the lakes, glimmering like a mirage. Did they touch the trees in remembrance as they became fewer and fewer, until there was only grass?
So rich is the reward that the contents are protected in a vault, double locked, a box inside a box.
So much was scattered and left along that trail. Graves of half the people. Language. Knowledge. Names. My great-grandmother Sha-note, “wind blowing through,” was renamed Charlotte. Names the soldiers or the missionaries could not pronounce were not permitted.
When they got to Kansas they must have been relieved to find groves of nut trees along the rivers — a type unknown to them, but delicious and plentiful. Without a name for this new food they just called them nuts — pigan — which became pecan in English.
I only make pecan pie at Thanksgiving, when there are plenty of people around to eat it all. I don’t even like it especially, but I want to honor that tree. Feeding guests its fruit around the big table recalls the trees’ welcome to our ancestors when they were lonesome and tired and so far from home.
The boys may have come home fishless, but they brought back nearly as much protein as if they’d had a stringer of catfish. Nuts are like the panfish of the forest, full of protein and, especially, fat — “poor man’s meat,” they might be called, and those boys were poor. Today we eat them daintily, shelled and toasted, but in the old times they’d boil them up in a porridge. The fat floated to the top like a chicken soup, and they skimmed it and stored it as nut butter: good winter food. High in calories and vitamins — everything you needed to sustain life. After all, that’s the whole point of nuts: to provide the embryo with all that is needed to start a new life.
Butternuts, black walnuts, hickories, and pecans are all closely related members of the same family (Juglandaceae). Our people carried them wherever they migrated, more often in baskets than in pants, though. Pecans today trace the rivers through the prairies, populating fertile bottomlands where people settled. My Haudenosaunee neighbors say that their ancestors were so fond of butternuts that the trees are good markers of old village sites today. Sure enough, there is a grove of butternuts, uncommon in “wild” forests, on the hill above the spring at my house. I clear the weeds around the young ones every year and slosh a bucket of water on them when the rains are late. Remembering.
The old family home place on the allotment in Oklahoma has a pecan tree shading what remains of the house. I imagine Grammy pouring nuts out to prepare them and one rolling away to a welcoming spot at the edge of the dooryard. Or maybe she paid her debt to the trees by planting a handful in her garden right then and there.
Thinking back to that old story again, it strikes me that the boys in the pecan grove were very wise to carry home all that they could: nut trees don’t make a crop every year, but rather produce at unpredictable intervals, a boom-and-bust cycle known as “mast fruiting.” Some years a feast, most years a famine. Unlike juicy fruits and berries, which invite you to eat them all at once before they spoil, nuts protect themselves with a hard, almost stony shell and a green, leathery husk. The tree does not mean for you to eat them right away with juice dripping down your chin. They are designed to be food for winter, when you need fat and protein, heavy calories to keep you warm. They are safety for hard times, the embryo of survival. So rich is the reward that the contents are protected in a vault, double locked, a box inside a box. This protects the embryo within and its food supply, but it also virtually guarantees that the nut will be squirreled away someplace safe.
The only way through the shell is a lot of work, and a squirrel would be unwise to sit gnawing it in the open where a hawk would gladly take advantage of its preoccupation. Nuts are designed to be brought inside, saved for later in a chipmunk’s cache or in the root cellar of an Oklahoma cabin. In the way of all hoards, some will surely be forgotten — and then a tree is born.
For mast fruiting to succeed in generating new forests, each tree has to make lots and lots of nuts — so many that it overwhelms the would-be seed predators. If a tree just plodded along, making a few nuts every year, they’d all get eaten and there would be no next generation of pecans. But given the high caloric value of nuts, the trees can’t afford this outpouring every year — they have to save up for it, as a family saves up for a special event. Mast-fruiting trees spend years making sugar, and rather than spending it little by little, they stick it under the proverbial mattress, banking calories as starch in their roots. When the account has a surplus, only then can a boy bring home pounds of nuts.
The phenomenon of mast fruiting remains a playground of hypotheses for tree physiologists and evolutionary biologists. Forest ecologists hypothesize that mast fruiting is the simple outcome of an energetic equation: make fruit only when you can afford it. That makes sense. But trees grow and accumulate calories at different rates, depending on their habitats. So, if this hypothesis were true, like the settlers who got the fertile farmland, the fortunate ones would get rich quickly and fruit often while their shaded neighbors would struggle and only rarely have an abundance, waiting years to reproduce. Each tree would fruit on its own schedule, predictable by the size of its reserves of stored starch. But they don’t. If one tree fruits, they all fruit — there are no soloists. Not one tree in a grove, but the whole grove; not one grove in the forest, but every grove; all across the county and all across the state. The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective. Exactly how they do this, we don’t yet know. But what we see is the power of unity: What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual.
In the summer of 1895, the root cellars throughout Indian Territory were full of pecans, and so were the bellies of boys and squirrels. For people, the pulse of abundance felt like a gift, a profusion of food to be simply picked up from the ground. That is, if you got there before the squirrels. And if you didn’t, at least there would be lots of squirrel stew that winter. The pecan groves give, and give again. Such communal generosity might seem incompatible with the process of evolution, which invokes the imperative of individual survival. But we make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole. The gift of abundance from pecans is also a gift to themselves. By sating squirrels and people, the trees are ensuring their own survival. The genes that translate to mast fruiting flow on evolutionary currents into the next generations, while those that lack the ability to participate will be eaten and reach an evolutionary dead end. Just so, people who know how to read the land for nuts and carry them home to safety will survive the February blizzards and pass on that behavior to their progeny, not by genetic transmission, but by cultural practice.
Scientists describe the generosity of mast fruiting with the predator-satiation hypothesis. The story seems to go like this: When the trees produce more than the squirrels can eat, some nuts escape predation. Likewise, when the squirrel larders are packed with nuts, the plump pregnant mamas have more babies in each litter and the squirrel population skyrockets. Which means that the hawk mamas have more babies, and fox dens are full too. But when the next fall comes, the happy days are over, because the trees have shut off nut production. There’s little to fill the squirrels’ larders now — they come home empty-handed — so they go out looking, harder and harder, exposing themselves to the increased population of watchful hawks and hungry foxes. The predator-prey ratio is not in their favor, and through starvation and predation the squirrel population plummets and the woods grow quiet without their chattering. You can imagine the trees whispering to each other at this point, “There are just a few squirrels left. Wouldn’t this be a good time to make some nuts?” All across the landscape, out come the pecan flowers poised to become a bumper crop again. Together, the trees survive, and thrive.
The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective.
The federal government’s Indian Removal policies wrenched many native peoples from their homelands. It separated us from our traditional knowledge and lifeways, the bones of our ancestors, their sustaining plants — but even this did not extinguish identity. So the government tried a new tool, separating children from their families and cultures, sending them far away to school, long enough, they hoped, to make them forget who they were.
Throughout Indian Territory there are records of Indian agents paid a bounty for rounding up kids to ship to the government boarding schools. Later, in a pretense of choice, the parents had to sign papers to let their children go “legally.” Parents who refused could go to jail. Some may have hoped it would give their children a better future than a dust bowl farm. Sometimes federal rations — weevily flour and rancid lard that were supposed to replace the buffalo — would be withheld until the children were signed over. Maybe it was a good pecan year that staved off the agents for one more season. The threat of being sent away would surely make a small boy run home half naked, his pants stuffed with food. Maybe it was a low year for pecans when the Indian agent came again, looking for skinny, brown kids who had no prospect of supper — maybe that was the year Grammy signed the papers.
Children, language, lands: almost everything was stripped away, stolen when you weren’t looking because you were trying to stay alive. In the face of such loss, one thing our people could not surrender was the meaning of land. In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the creation was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold. These are the meanings people took with them when they were forced from their ancient homelands to new places. Whether it was their homeland or the new land forced upon them, land held in common gave people strength; it gave them something to fight for. And so — in the eyes of the federal government — those beliefs were a threat.
So after thousands of miles of forced moves and loss and finally settling us in Kansas, the federal government came once again to my people and offered another move, this time to a place that would be theirs forever, a move to end all moves. And what’s more, the people were offered a chance to become United States citizens, to be part of the great country that surrounded them and to be protected by its power. Our leaders, my grandpa’s grandpa among them, studied and counciled and sent delegations to Washington to consult. The U.S. Constitution apparently had no power to protect the homelands of indigenous peoples. Removal had made that abundantly clear. But the Constitution did explicitly protect the land rights of citizens who were individual property owners. Perhaps that was the route to a permanent home for the people.
The leaders were offered the American Dream, the right to own their own property as individuals, inviolate from the vagaries of shifting Indian policy. They’d never be forced off their lands again. There would be no more graves along a dusty road. All they had to do was surrender their allegiance to land held in common and agree to private property. With heavy hearts, they sat in council all summer, struggling to decide and weighing the options, which were few. Stay in Kansas on communal land and run the risk of losing it all, or go to Indian Territory as individual landowners with a legal guarantee. Families were divided against families. I’m told that the historic council met all that hot summer in a shady place that came to be known as the Pecan Grove.
We have always known that the plants and animals have their own councils, and a common language. The trees, especially, we recognize as our teachers. But it seems no one listened that summer when the pecans counseled: “Stick together, act as one. We pecans have learned that there is strength in unity, that the lone individual can be picked off as easily as the tree that has fruited out of season.” The teachings of pecans were not heard or heeded.
And so our families packed the wagon one more time and moved west to Indian Territory, to the promised land, to become the Citizen Potawatomi. Tired and dusty but hopeful for their future, they found an old friend their first night on the new lands: a pecan grove. They rolled their wagons beneath the shelter of its branches and began again. Every tribal member, even my grandpa, a baby in arms, was given title to an allotment of land the federal government deemed sufficient for making a living as a farmer. By accepting citizenship, they ensured that their allotments could not be taken from them. Unless, of course, a citizen could not pay his taxes. Or a rancher offered a keg of whiskey or a lot of money, “fair and square.” Any unallocated parcels were snapped up by non-Indian settlers just as hungry squirrels snap up pecans. During the allotment era, more than two-thirds of the reservation lands were lost. Barely a generation after land was “guaranteed” through the sacrifice of common land converted to private property, most of it was gone.
The pecan trees and their kin show a capacity for concerted action, for unity of purpose that transcends the individual. They ensure somehow that all stand together and thus survive. Certain cues from the environment, like a particularly wet spring or a long growing season, may trigger fruiting, but, given differences in habitat, it seems unlikely that environment alone could be the key to synchrony.
In the old times, our elders say, the trees talked to each other. They’d stand in their own council and craft a plan. But scientists decided long ago that plants were deaf and mute, locked in isolation without communication. The possibility of conversation was summarily dismissed. Science pretends to be purely rational, completely neutral, a system of knowledge-making in which the observation is independent of the observer. And yet the conclusion was drawn that plants cannot communicate because they lack the mechanisms that animals have for communication. Until quite recently no one seriously explored the possibility that plants might “speak” to one another. But pollen has been carried reliably on the wind for eons, communicated by males to receptive females to make those very nuts. If the wind can be trusted with that fecund responsibility, why not with messages?
There is now compelling evidence that our elders were right — the trees are talking to one another. They communicate via pheromones, hormonelike compounds that are wafted on the breeze, laden with meaning. Scientists have identified specific compounds that one tree will release when it is under the stress of insect attack: gypsy moths gorging on its leaves or bark beetles under its skin. The tree sends out a distress call: “Hey, you guys over there? I’m under attack here. You might want to raise the drawbridge and arm yourselves for what is coming your way.” The downwind trees catch the drift, sensing those few molecules of alarm pheromone, the whiff of danger. This gives them time to manufacture defensive chemicals. Forewarned is fore-armed — the invaders are repelled. The individual benefits, and so does the entire grove. Trees appear to be talking about mutual defense. Could they also communicate to synchronize masting? There is so much we cannot yet sense with our limited human capacities. Tree conversations are still far above our heads.
Some studies of mast fruiting have suggested that the mechanism for synchrony comes not through the air, but underground. The trees in a forest are often interconnected by subterranean networks of mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots. Mycorrhizal symbiosis enables the fungi to forage for mineral nutrients in the soil and deliver them to the tree in exchange for carbohydrates. The mycorrhizae may form fungal bridges between individual trees, so that all the trees in a forest are connected. These fungal networks appear to redistribute the wealth of carbohydrates from tree to tree. A kind of Robin Hood, they take from the rich and give to the poor so that all the trees arrive at the same carbon surplus at the same time. They weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them. Through unity, survival. Soil, fungus, tree, squirrel, boy — all are the beneficiaries of reciprocity.
How generously the pecan trees shower us with food, literally giving of themselves so that we can live. But in the giving, their lives are also ensured. Living by the precepts of the Honorable Harvest — to take only what is given, to use it well, to be grateful for the gift, and to reciprocate the gift — is easy in a pecan grove. We reciprocate the gift by taking care of the grove, protecting it from harm, planting seeds so that new groves will shade the prairie and feed the squirrels.
All flourishing is mutual.
Now, two generations later, after removal, after allotment, after the boarding schools, after diaspora, my family returns to Oklahoma, to what is left of my grandfather’s allotment. From the hilltop you can still see pecan groves along the river. At night we dance on the old powwow grounds. The ancient ceremonies greet the sunrise. The smell of corn soup and the sound of drums fill the air as the nine bands of Potawatomi, scattered across the country by this history of removal, come together again for a few days each year in a search for belonging. The Potawatomi Gathering of Nations reunites the people, an antidote to the divide-and-conquer strategy that was used to separate our people from each other and from our homelands. The synchrony of our Gathering is determined by our leaders, but more importantly, there is something like a mycorrhizal network that unites us, an unseen connection of history and family and responsibility to both our ancestors and our children. As a nation, we are beginning to follow the guidance of our elders the pecans by standing together for the benefit of all. We are remembering what they said, that all flourishing is mutual.
This is a mast year for my family; we are all here at the Gathering, thick on the ground, like seeds for the future. Like an embryo provisioned and protected inside layers of stony shell, we have survived the lean years and flower together. I go walking in the pecan grove, perhaps the very place where my grandfather stuffed his pant legs full. He would be surprised to find us all here, dancing the circle, remembering pecans.