Chestnuts – Greenwich Park, London
It happens in October, when leaves turn yellow, orange and red, and don’t last long before covering streets and parks. That’s when chestnuts fall from the trees by the hundreds. They make a dry sound when they hit the ground, ploc, ploc ploc. They may be aggressive and hit a distracted passerby on the head. At this point, they are still encapsulated in hard green balls, like miniature porcupines. Don’t try to peel them with bare hands: you will end up with bloody fingers. We need to wait until the spike helmet starts to give in, slowly revealing the inside treasure. We can even see the tip of the chestnut pushing to break free. The best method is to open the hard peel with your shoe soles, using one foot to hold one side of the fruit. The other side should work as a mop, rubbing it until the chestnut pops up from inside. Chestnut foraging was a common scene many years ago in October and November in Greenwich Park, where I used to go for daily walks.
Children are the first to notice them, since it’s getting too cold to be in the playground, where swings and slides are wet, due to a thin, icy cover. Trying to find something else to do, kids hang out under the trees, waiting for the spiky balls to fall down. They use the shoe technique to open them, but some boys and girls collect them in buckets. Many throw them at their friends, starting chestnut wars.
The neighborhood dog walkers already come with two plastic bags: one for the poop, other for chestnuts. They walk miles until they find patches of grass carpeted with brown-yellowish balls, when the spiky crust is already opened and it’s easy to get the chestnut inside. The dog people walk stoically all morning, tree after tree, their faithful pets by their side. They leave the park with full bags, as people leave Sainsbury or Tesco, the local big supermarket chains.
I used to watch a lady every day at the park. We never spoke. I secretly called her Mandy. She was probably in her 60’s and did Tai Chi with three friends on the lawn. After finishing the session and saying goodbye, Mandy went through the chestnut tree circuit. She was meticulous, looking at every fruit on the ground. She was petite, maybe 5 feet high, skinny as a leaf, always wearing black wool pants and a thin, worn out cardigan the exact color of ripe chestnuts. Then, she took a bag from her cardigan pocket and filled it up to the top. She studied every fruit before placing them in the bag, smelling them, feeling their ripeness with her fingers. She talked to herself all the time. Maybe she was talking to the chestnuts.
Once the bags were heavy, she left, always by the Maze Hill gate, close to Deer Park. I fought my urge to follow her, to know where she lived, if she drove, if she took a double decker bus with the bags. I never did. Wondering and imagining is more fun.
By the end of November, the communal chestnut harvest is over. Trees are naked, their ghostly branches exposed, touched daily by the London mist. I don’t like to walk that often now, as the rain and cold has taken over. I miss Mandy and her bags. I imagine rows of chestnut jars in her pantry in South East London, symmetrical like her Tai Chi movements. Or maybe she sold all the fruit at once, went to Selfridges and bought herself a new cardigan.