“Nowadays for many peoples acorns are their wealth, even in peacetime. Furthermore, when corn is scarce, acorns are dried and ground into flour.”
Pliny the Elder, Natural History
There is something about the super-abundance of acorns. It makes you want to laugh out loud. It also gives reason to reflect on the deep powers at work in the forest. And in our own lives.
Acorns have such wonderful aesthetic and useful qualities, it can be easy to forget that they are actually the seeds of oak trees. I wonder what percent of acorns ever sprout. And among those that sprout, how many ever grow into mature trees? Both percentages are very low. But has something gone wrong when so many animals come and eat the acorns, or the seedlings? Rather, it seems, that is when all is going well.
Why do oak trees produce such a super-abundance of acorns? And why is it that this super-abundance is such a boon for so many higher mammals, perhaps most especially humans?
Such ‘why-questions’ are not dead ends. Indeed, an honest and rigorous pursuit of the answer to these questions leads deep into the heart of the highest realities. It leads, I dare say, to things very close to the meaning of human life.
When Pliny speaks of acorns as the wealth of peoples, I’m not sure why he says “even peacetime.” My guess is that the next sentence has the answer: when corn is scarce, as it might be in time of war, acorns are especially important as a replacement for it. Of course at all times acorns can be a significant fodder—and one requiring no cultivation but simply ready to hand–both for domestic animals and wild animals alike.
At the end of the day, acorns are a great wealth for all of us, whether or not we have the pleasure of eating pigs or deer that are fattened on them, or we use the lumber of trees that grow from them. This time of year it is well worth taking the time to sit or walk in the woods and ponder. At work in every breeze is a great beneficence that sows our wealth all around us.
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Note: This year, at least in my corner of the Shenandoah Valley, is shaping up to be a great year for acorns. The chestnut oaks are already dropping copious numbers of 1 inch diameter acorns. I hope that everyone will get at least some time outside under the trees in the next few weeks.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) was a Roman naturalist and general. His Natural History is an important early work in natural science.
Image: Leaves and acorns of Quercus Alba, the great eastern white oak, king among trees. Donald Peattie, naturalist, author, artist.