Harvesting Piñon Nuts
[the practical + the poetic]
the Poetic first, it goes without saying //
Autumn is the time to make space for being deliberately slow, decidedly unproductive. There is, as ever, much to be done before Winter's arrival, but all the same, it is the season to give yourself the gift of an entire afternoon, moving from bed to forest, forest to bed--trying on bits of wisdom from books opened at random, wondering at the untold stories this life might yet have in store, quietly crouched and gathering fallen piñon nuts. And that is where today's story begins--with the trees, the forest, and the ancient knowing within each human that it is from the Wilds where true nourishment has always come. It is the story of the Piñon nut.
Harvesting just about anything from nature falls into the category of the unspeakable pleasures of living on Earth. Harvesting just about anything from nature falls into the category of the unspeakable pleasures of living close to the Earth. Harvesting tangled roots, windblown seed, fallen nuts--the intimacy with the ground + soil that their collection demands--this is another thing entirely. To gather these things we must, first humble ourselves. It is necessary to sit, to crouch, or best of all, to squat as our eyes and fingers search out nuts amongst the duff and aging needles. Squatting constitutes a meditation all its own. It is a stance so native to our human form--the position from which we birth, from which we tend fires, and I'm sure you can conjure a few more, quite obvious, examples on your own. For those more comfortable sitting, a small harvesting rug makes itself quite useful here so as not to be poked and pricked by the delicate but tenacious needles of the piñon of which the duff is comprised.
Gathering fallen Pine nuts familiarizes one with the sensation of being carried along by the current of Life. If you simply gather the nuts, allowing your eyes and fingertips be drawn to the next one and the next one, and the next one after that, you will begin to develop a subtle but profound understanding--that you need not search, that you need not exert almost any effort, but that instead, the next moment, your next move, will be revealed in the exact right timing without your having to will it to be so. This is something that I first came to understand while picking raspberries at the edge of the wood on a tiny wild island in the middle of Lake Superior. With the warm Summer sun, playing against my skin and the impending prick of the raspberry canes threatening my bare arms in all directions, I found that if I relaxed totally into the moment and allowed the berries to be picked then it became a blissful and nearly effortless task.
While gathering the fallen nuts, one by one, may not be the traditional nor the most efficient technique for amassing large quantities of piñon, I found I had strong preference to do so over the most popular alternative--laying out tarps and blankets and shaking the trees to dislodge the nuts from the pinecones on overhead branches. There is nothing wrong with this method and you will likely have a significantly greater yield if you employ it. However, half the satisfaction of harvesting piñon nuts can be found in the slowness of it--the hours it takes to carefully pluck each nut from the Earth's surface--your fingers making contact with every single one, the other small treasures you may find while searching them out, the precious silence and stillness of the forest around you. Trees teach us about Time--the real time of the Earth, of the rise and fall of our chest as we breathe; the remind us of the quiet metronome of our steadily beating hearts. It is said that the Piñon only produces a worthy crop of nuts every seven years--by my estimation, it would be a shame to rush through the experience when it comes at long last.
the Practical, following, with equal weight and measure //
The brilliant yellow blossoming of the Rabbit Brush in early Autumn is the desert's reminder that the time to harvest Piñon nuts has arrived. However, the nuts will remain abundant on the forest floor and viable for up to a month or so after the flowers' hue has dulled.
Let's talk quality control. First off--don't confuse the deer poop, nearly identical in size and shape with the piñon nuts. It's not hard to do, but worth noting. Next, as you move from tree to tree, sample a few nuts from each new location before collecting--some trees yield far richer and more complex nuts than others. Lastly, prefer amber colored nuts to the ashen ones--the color is indicative of age and freshness.
Kids have an uncanny ability to collect small things from the ground. If you have children, this is a fabulous way to u̶s̶e̶ ̶ t̶h̶e̶m̶ to introduce them to wild foods. You could even offer to pay them by the pound or the ounce, depending on how prodigious they happen to be. You won't be alone if you choose to do so--come Autumn in the high desert, it's common to see cars parked along the side of the road and just beyond them, three generations on foot, scanning the forest floor for pine nuts.
Pine nuts are an important winter food source for birds, deer, squirrels, and mice--not to mention other humans. Keep this in mind while harvesting and only gather as much as you and your family will eat in two years--the length of time the nuts will keep, stored properly.
As you harvest piñon nuts, you will likely find yourself amidst juniper trees, prickly pear cactus, perhaps some yucca, or even in the presence of majestic ponderosas. While gathering only the food or medicine of a single species can certainly lend a sense of reverence and intentionality to the activity, you might also consider harvesting juniper berries, piñon pitch, usnea, or whatever other medicines seems to speak to you in concert with the pine nuts.
The taste of freshly gathered piñon is markedly different from the pine nuts available commercially. It is truly unique--both sweet and savory, tasting at once of the forest floor, the Summer thunderstorms and Autumn Skies, the rich aromatics that characterize the needles and sap of the tree, all these things combine to create a flavor that cannot be described. That said, your precious harvest is best eaten straight out of the shell, cracked mindfully between front teeth, just like sunflower seeds. The nutmeats make a wonderful milk as well, blended with water and a pinch of salt and strain, reserving the still-edible pulp. To elaborate upon the already delicious Piñon milk, warm it in an appropriate pot, add a small handful of piñon needles, simmer carefully, remove piñon needles, add honey to taste and enjoy warm.
Shanna Yazzie demonstrates the traditional
Navajo practice of harvesting + roasting Pine Nuts
Navajo practice of harvesting + roasting Pine Nuts
And finally, a dated but very evocative short film chronicling
the history of the piñon as a food of paramount importance for peoples past and present...
Do you have a favorite piñon recipe? Harvesting tale?
Share it in the comments below!