Shagbark and Pipeline

I had my pants rolled up and was walking in the center of the Lockatong Creek when I saw the tree. I had been stepping carefully so as not to swallow little fish in my rubber sandals. The fishes were so prevalent in the still waters, between pickerelweed and wapato and marsh pennywort. I don't believe I'd every seen so many young fish in a stream anywhere and here I was in central New Jersey doing my best not to squish them between my toes. The whole place was fecund as can be, with broad swaths of emergent plants growing in the rich mucks between the flat-cleaved Lockatong shales.

I was watching for the fish, but mainly I had my eyes on plants. I was doing botanical survey work, looking for rare plant species.  My GPS unit was clipped to my belt and it had me placed solidly in between the two parallel lines, 400' apart, that represented the proposed PennEast natural gas pipeline corridor stretching from the Delaware River at the base of the New Jersey Highlands, across the Kingwood plateau and through the bottom edge of the Sourlands where a Triassic dike of diabase rock forms a low, rounded ridgeline.

I had been hired by New Jersey Conservation Foundation to locate as many rare plants as I could within the proposed pipeline right of way, before eminent domain seized the land and the center of the corridor became pipe and fill, landing and riprap.

Almost every day out, the plants had spoken to me and there was something (rare) to report. Not that a plant could stop a gas pipeline, but still, they were there and would have to be reckoned with in some small, probably bureaucratic way.

I climbed a steep bank out of the water to take a better look at an exceptionally large tree. The tree was a shagbark hickory and her plates of bark peeled in great irregular strips like shredded rags frozen on a clothesline. Or, more befitting the elegance of the plant, the bark was eccentric and curled like the brush strokes in some Chinese landscape painting, vital and poised at the same time. Her roots spread wide like a wooden kraken, rendered visible in profile by the cleft of the bank. From the great exposed roots suckers sprang, so that the tree comprised one massive trunk and then eight or nine smaller ones. The main and oldest trunk had the widest girth I had ever seen for a wild hickory.

Up off the bank, underneath the copse of this many-trunked shagbark, was a carpet of oak sedge with a few white wood asters, bedstraws, white avens, and poison ivy. And at the base of the biggest shagbark trunk was a small and bedraggled woody shrub stem, partially consumed by the overabundant deer, bearing just a few vaguely maple-shaped leaves and numerous small dark prickles, with larger dark thorns at the nodes.

Missouri Gooseberry, leaf

Missouri Gooseberry, leaf

The small shrub was Missouri gooseberry, Ribes missouriense. Fairly common in the north-central prairie states, it was rare enough in New Jersey to warrant a status of State Endangered[1]. I took a waypoint on the GPS, some photos, and made a few quick notes to document the occurrence.

Of all the properties I had searched thus far, this parcel along the Lockatong Creek stood perhaps some chance of being spared pipeline construction. Not because of the Missouri gooseberry, but because the property is also the site of one of the most significant former Native American villages in the state. Archaeological work initiated by the property's current owner in a last-ditch attempt to save the place was turning up a torrent of Lenape stone artifacts and pottery shards.


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Hickories are known for their hard, dense, aromatic wood, and in forming it they take their time on architecture, compounding strength with fine structure and not sparing quality in the interest of speed. While the shagbark along the stream would look slender compared to a sycamore or tuliptree of the same age, I have no doubt that her years along that fertile streamside bank numbered in the centuries.

I imagine that perhaps in her youth, Lenape youths picked Missouri gooseberries beneath her curving boughs and searched for fine fragments of argillite stone in the streambank where her fresh rootlets sought water.

When I saw that hickory on the banks of the Lockatong with the rare gooseberry among her roots, the hickory nuts were still high in the boughs and the August sun was warming the creek waters. I hoped I might be able to return in the fall for some nuts, to plant out future hickories somewhere... far from the proposed pipeline.

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My family and I gather hickory nuts for food. That September, we gathered several gallons of hickory nuts from a hedgerow between farm fields by the Musconetcong River. The farm field edges were easy to forage in, practically bare but for a fine pubescence of winter rye cover crop. Here and there a soybean pod missed by the mechanical harvester lay dry and incongruous next to the bounty of hickory nuts. I imagine the incredible tonnage of rich, oily nuts that the field might have borne had it been devoted to Carya ovata (shagbark hickory) rather than commodity cropping of Glycine max (soybeans). I looked between the winter rye seedlings at the limestone soil, gray and exhausted. I briefly imagined a forest of hickories with an understory of oak sedge, perfoliate bellwort, wild geranium, Solomon's seal, bloodroot and hepatica-- instead of the seed-drilled lines of grass.

Back home, we eagerly cracked the nuts with hammers on a flat stone, and my wife and I passed the best nutmeats to our son. He savored them, occasionally spitting out a small shard of the hickory-hard shell that was still attached to the nutmeat.

Shagbark and Pipeline Jared Rosenbaum-1.jpg

Separating hickory nutmeats from shells with hammer and stone, or with nutcracker and nutpick, for that matter, is slow and painstaking and yields little easy food. However, we found the nutmeat so richly flavored that even my son, not yet five years old, spent a half hour in thrall to the process when we got home with our foraged bounty, as he awaited a fortuitous crack and another few millimeters of nut. You've heard of the Slow Food movement? Handcracked hickory is real slow food.

The nuts of the shagbark hickory, Carya ovata, are similar in flavor to the pecan, Carya illinoinensis. The two species share a genus and also a proclivity for rich bottomlands, though the pecan is perhaps more bound to the rich alluvium of the southern rivers where it resides than the shagbark is to northern floodplains. Shagbark can be found ranging with assorted oaks in reasonably moist, deep soils even in the bony glaciated hills of the New Jersey Highlands, though it is more prevalent in the rich organic silt loams of the Piedmont shale and diabase formations. Pecans are larger and much more easily shelled, but to my taste shagbark has the better flavor, a dense oily aromatic richness backed by sweetness.

Native Americans in this part of the country held the shagbark in high esteem, reportedly preferring the nuts over those of all the other staple mast trees in our flora. The calorie, lipid and protein content of hickory nuts are far superior to acorns, and on a par with or better than black walnut, butternut, and American hazelnut .[2] Unlike acorns, they do not require extensive leaching to become palatable.

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Early Europeans encountering hickory in the colonial era did not recognize the genus. Their closest reference point was walnuts. In late 1500s Virginia, Thomas Harriot wrote: "There are two sortes of Walnuttes... one kind is of the same taste and forme or litle differing from ours of England... the other is greater and a verie ragged and harde shell: but the kernel great, very oylie and sweete."

Europeans might have known hickory but for a vagary of European topography. Species of Carya inhabited the European continent prior to the most recent ice age. The southward migration of the European hickories was barred by the mountain ranges of Europe, which tend east-west instead of north-south. Unable to reach unglaciated refugia in the south of the continent, the European hickories vanished from the flora during the Pleistocene. Eastern North America, blessed with a significant north-south mountain chain, the Appalachians, retained its hickories, together with one of the most significantly biodiverse temperate forest floras in the world.

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Imagine this scene: a primeval fire spreads across the forest floor, consuming dry grasses and sedges and the fallen foliage of the previous autumn. Small saplings are killed outright and many herbs of the forest floor are burnt down to taproots, corms, and rhizomes. Here and there, the fire licks at the trunks of massive oaks and hickories. Thick layers of bark, exfoliating or corky, protect the great living capillaries of the cambium beneath.

Later in the season, the nuts fall from the ancient canopy in prodigious quantity: acorns for processing into flours and meals, hickory for oil and cream and cakes.

Such fires were deliberately set by Native Americans as a means of maintaining an ideal habitat for nut trees and nut harvesting. Some might call it agroforestry or stewardship, others "resource management", but the indigenous methods of favoring food plants on a wide scale in a diverse natural landscape has no parallel and thus no appropriate terminology in the domesticated tongues of the Old World. Perhaps the recent appellation permaculture comes closest, though the scale and sophistication of Native practice exceeds contemporary permaculture practice.

M. Kat Anderson describes a similar indigenous practice among the tribes of pre-colonial California, who maintained vast productive oak savannahs for acorns as well as for seeds and grains of sun-loving understory plants. "Regular burning... created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized the potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged a diversity of food crops"[3]. Native-set fires helped to control insects and pathogens affecting acorns and other forest crops, benefitting native harvesters but also rendering a reciprocal service to the trees and other species which provided bountiful food.

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For the first few years, our family nibbled hickory nuts here and there, sometimes roasting them on top of the woodstove to enhance the flavor and to ease cracking and nutmeat separation. We loved the flavor but ate only small amounts as a treat - it was a labor of love to pick out the nutmeats.

Hickory nuts are a fine food with their smoky, oily sweetness and fine balance of lipids, proteins, and sugars. They possess high quality essential fatty acids in an easily digested oil comprising two thirds of the shelled nut by weight[4]. They make such a fine quality food that the Iroquois are documented as having prepared an infant food of the nut oil - for emergencies when the true first food, breast milk, was unavailable[5].

The use of shagbark hickory as a staple food by Native Americans was widespread throughout its range. William Bartram, 18th century botanist and explorer, writes of Creek families harvesting over a hundred bushels of hickory nuts each.

Sam Thayer, expert forager and occasional wit, writes in his book The Forager's Harvest, "There is no hamburger tree". While berries and greens are easy to eat straight from the plant, and are heavily featured in wild food guides, many staple foods that underlie indigenous and forager diets require honed processing and preparation skills. These foods include wild nuts, tubers, legumes, grains, and other diet fundamentals.

If cracking and picking at hickory nutmeats is so time-intensive, what processing skills attended the massive Native American utilization of hickories?

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A few days after we brought home our several gallons of foraged hickory nuts this past September, I start experimenting.

In William Bartram's account, published in 1791, the Creeks "pound [the hickory nuts] to pieces and then cast them in boiling water, which, after passing through some fine strainers, preserves the most oily part of the liquid; this they call by a name which signifies hickory milk; it is as sweet and rich as fresh cream, and is an ingredient in most of their cookery, especially hominy and corn cakes".

So we sat on the kitchen floor with hammers and a sack, and pulverized a few cups worth of hickory nuts. We simmered them for twenty minutes, until the smoky nutty aroma became irresistible. I strained the liquid and poured a small cupful for each of us. The decoction is richly nourishing, oily and thick, more like a coffee than a tea.

Despite several attempts, I failed to get anything much resembling "fresh cream", or the "hickory butter" described in some other sources. Perhaps it's a matter of scale, and I hope to someday process gallons of hickory nuts in a giant kettle.

Drying down the floated nutmeat

Drying down the floated nutmeat

But I find other assets of the process instead. As the crushed nuts boil in water, the nutmeats float to the top and the shells remain heaped on the bottom. Thus separated, the nutmeats can be scooped out of the hickory brew. Consumed immediately, they are moist and slightly mucilaginous like oatmeal, and become a rich delicacy with the addition of some maple syrup.

I also try placing the scooped-up nutmeats in an iron skillet atop our woodstove, drying them back down. They become crispy and roasted, like a granola with a deep aromatic nutty richness. The flavor is terrific and the feeling of nourishment profound.

After these experiments, I dream of a vast forest with many hickory trees. I imagine a group of us walking together in harvest season with hand-woven baskets, singing and talking as we work. The children chase each other among the groves of shaggy-barked giants as the adults fill bushel after bushel with the trees' bounty. The forest understory is filled with the flowers of white wood aster and wreath goldenrod, and little bluestem grass is starting to billow and luminesce with fine feathery-awned seeds. Here and there, we stop to gather medicine roots like black cohosh and butterfly milkweed to dry for the winter. Later that night, we absorb the radiant energy of a communal fire together, and drink hickory milk spiked with syrup of sugar maple.

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In October, I return to the property along the Lockatong Creek with the historic Lenape village site and the giant old shagbark. As I pull in, the owner steps out of his garage. He thanks me effusively for being here. "You're a good man," he says when I tell him I'm back to look for rare plants again. He looks like he has a strong need to be surrounded by goodness, after all the nights of lost sleep and the stressful limbo as the pipeline company and the Feds consummate their bureaucratic dance. He tells me he's going off to meet a lawyer who's an expert in Native American affairs. He's exploring the possibility of donating his property to a local tribe, in an effort to save it from eminent domain.

I walk a circuitous track towards the creek, finding a few more individuals of the Missouri gooseberry among the spicebush, blackhaw viburnum, pin oak, and wild yam root. I figure that many of the same plant species lived here when the Lenape dwelled here, and wonder about the Missouri gooseberry, so disjunct from its core range west of the Great Lakes. Was it planted here by the Lenape as a perennial food plant, still persisting centuries or more later? Part of the same indigenous permaculture as the shagbark and oaks?

When I reach the creek, the magnetism of the massive shagbark draws me downstream. The water is much colder than it was in August, and I cross on rocks and then hug the steep bank until I reach the old hickory. I scramble up the bank and then genuflect, hands in the leaf litter, searching. Pushing aside the crackly dry foliage, I find one nut, and then several more. Soon, my bag holds a few dozen. I'll plant them on our farm when I get home.

I have a mournful, powerless feeling as I leave. The great shagbark is caught in the latest act of a long eradication of the indigenous denizens of our land.  Perhaps the best we can do for her is to protect her children and to sing the praises of the shagbark hickory, food of the once and future native peoples of the land where we live.



[1] Changed to a state rank of S2 subsequent to this field season, possibly due to the distribution data from this project

[2] Abrams, M. D., & Nowacki, G. J. (2008). Native Americans as active and passive promoters of mast and fruit trees in the eastern USA. The Holocene, 18(7), 1123-1137.

[3] Anderson, K. (2005). Tending the wild: Native American knowledge and the management of California's natural resources. Univ of California Press.

[4] Brill, S., & Dean, E. (1994). Identifying and harvesting edible and medicinal plants in wild (and not so wild) places.