I’ve been thinking about acorns a lot over the past several weeks. Having tromped around the Southern Appalachians for a couple of decades now, I can’t recall ever having seen as heavy a crop of acorns as there is this year. On my last two outings with my boys on the A.T., I found myself crunching as many as a dozen with any given step. I also found myself under constant assault. At any given spot on the trail, you could bend down and quickly fill both hands with ammunition, and so Will and Andrew gleefully bombarded me for miles (they particularly favored acorns from chestnut oaks—big and glossy and weighty). I didn’t exactly mind, as this was a mutually beneficial arrangement; their giggling pursuit of a steadily moving target meant that they covered a good bit of distance without dawdling or asking to rest, without any complaining whatsoever.
And so two weekends ago, whilst enduring this onslaught, I found myself thinking about the ecology of oak trees. I had read somewhere that oak trees only produce big acorn crops every several years as a clever evolutionary adaptation to outwit squirrels, their primary herbivorous predators. During most years, a light acorn crop serves as a limiting factor on squirrel populations, ensuring that squirrel numbers are low when the next prolific acorn year rolls around. As a result, much of the eventual bumper crop remains uneaten—ideally, squirrels will carry away and cache acorns like crazy but never get around to eating all of them and thus effectively disperse (and plant) the seed crop. Pretty clever, no? Of course, this evolutionary scheme only works if all of the oak trees in a given area of forest are on the same acorn production schedule (no sense producing a meager crop if your tree neighbor floods the market), but there’s no clear understanding as to how oaks end up coordinating their outfits, so to speak.
The most likely explanation, of course, is that all the oaks in a forest will respond to the same climatological trigger. Well, if Sir Isaac Newton could reach scientific epiphany from being hit on the head with a falling apple, maybe a fusillade of thrown acorns might work the same magic for me. I suddenly realized, having recently had an oak tree behind my house succumb to thirst and flatten my car, that our current “exceptional” drought might potentially open a lot of holes for sunshine in an otherwise solid forest canopy. What better time to produce a heavy mast crop than just before a period of heavy tree mortality? I went from thinking “Wow, what a great autumn to be a black bear” (bears being heavy mast consumers) to having the disquieting notion that the underfoot crunch I’d been enjoying might actually foretell ecological woe.
And then last week I read in the Washington Post that folks up north are also worried about acorns . . . because their trees evidently didn’t produce any this year. None! The Post quotes field botanist Rod Simmons, worried that he’s witnessing a climatic event: “Let’s hope it’s not something ghastly going on with the natural world.” Isn’t that typical of us tree-huggers? We each see opposite ends of a continuum but suffer from the same gloomy speculation. Maybe there is no divination to be had from acorns, after all.
Even so, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to and ask questions of our natural surroundings. Distressingly few people do.