Something falling on the roof woke me. Thwack. And then again, unnaturally loud, thwack, thwack, thwack. After that the sound of running feet above my head.
The air was cool and dry, the windows open. Between our city houses, sounds are amplified. What I heard was acorns, just little acorns sounding heavy as coconuts. They dropped from the neighbors’ red oak on the north side of our roof. The sound of running was made by a squirrel’s paws. Maybe that squirrel shook the acorns loose, I don’t know.
It took me awhile to put it all together as I woke on a perfect morning.
I got up in the morning light of Lughnasa, midpoint between solstice and equinox, feast of mortality. Past our garden overgrown with milkweed, bee balm, grapevine, and honeysuckle I walked out to catch the city bus, wary of those acorns on the brick driveway. They can kill my feet if I step wrong. I always remember walking barefoot to my swing tree on the farm, gingerly tip-toeing through the burry acorns in August grass. Even now, in grown-up work shoes, the peril of acorns underfoot is accompanied in my memory by the smell of dust and tall corn.
I work in one of the oldest buildings on the University of Minnesota campus, a Parthenon replica in an old grove of bur oaks above the Mississippi River. Built in 1894, for 30 years it was the university’s first library. This summer, I have loved seeing the morning sunlight on the frieze of classical figures under the porch as I approach. Today from the bus stop I crossed the knoll, a lawn of scattered acorns. I sat down among acorns on the stone bench facing Burton Hall, just for a few minutes, to drink in the August light before starting work. This is the month named for Caesar Augustus.
I have been thinking of the hinge between trees and food. Oak trees produce a feast of acorns for the squirrels. A friend tells me that oaks host a banquet for more than a hundred essential insects. Oak trees were once commonly crafted into tables and chairs for our own meals.
Gramma Marty had an oak dining-room table in the Marty farmhouse, with legs like small tree trunks and leaves to make it larger. In 1970, the summer after she died, Mom and Auntie sold that table before they realized its value. All they could see was how much space it took, how old-fashioned it looked with those glossy ribbed legs like small Doric columns, how impractical and vulnerable to water stains. They were attracted to sleek things, metal and laminates that seemed indestructible.
Auntie learned from that mistake and saw wood with new eyes. But Mom was committed to modern. She loved kitchen and dining-room tables and chairs that she could wipe down with a wet cloth, surfaces and vinyl in the latest colors. That’s how we grew up. In 1974, living with a Swiss family for an exchange, I horrified my host mother by leaving a damp towel on the wooden chair in my bedroom, behavior that severely damaged her view of my common sense. But by then my farm home in Minnesota contained only one wooden chair, finished, not painted, something my mother tolerated as an antique.
Later, my host family and I visited the valley in Switzerland where my ancestors lived a century before. I will always remember the stunning heaviness of the chairs in the little restaurant where my newfound relatives hosted us for supper. It took muscle power to move them, to pull up snug to the thick table. Those chairs and table were ancient, built from oak when it was common in those mountains.
Acorns dropped and squirrels darted as I sat on the bench another minute. Here the sounds gained their proper proportion, tik—tik, tik and a rustling scurry, but unmuffled and clear, echoing against the stone and cement. Above the bench stood the statue of John Sargent Pillsbury, a book in his outstretched hand, father of the University from a family that would beget a global food brand with a giggly dough-white mascot. We are surrounded by icons.
Into the Parthenon I walked, out of the sunlight, to a far corner in the back, to write in a room where the old stacks of the library used to be.
Acorn: icon for idea.