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26 april 2012

I live in the shade of two venerable 70-year-old pecan trees, and I am grateful for it all summer long, even when the fall arrives without much of a harvest. The falls of 2010 and 2011 indeed brought no harvest; the pecans were "masting," waiting out a season in the vegetable equivalent of evasive action against pests. Such patience is fine if you're 70 and you're a tree, but if you're a pecan grower, Jane Manaster points out, it is unnerving to be at the mercy of an organism that takes such a long view of things.

Manaster's Pecans, a guidebook to all topics pecan, notes that pecans do not grow true to seed. The seedlings that come up from squirrel-buried nuts in our garden aren't guaranteed to bear nuts like the ones they grew from. This property makes many kinds of fruit tree exasperating to orchard-keepers. But unlike apples, where the offspring can be sour and merely ciderworthy, seedling-borne pecans are invariably sweet and tasty. It's just that they may not look just like their cultivated parents, or fit in the cracking machines that have automated modern pecan production.

Orchard pecans are therefore grown from grafts. Our ancient pecans were originally orchard trees, planted by the legendary Texas pecan maven O.S. Gray in the 1940s as part of his vast experimental orchards. They are exquisite pecans, but too small to figure commercially in today's market, which is dominated by long tubular nuts, twice the size of those that fall from our trees.

Suburban Texans often remove pecan trees. They're "messy," to quote typical Arlingtonians, who like to live among natural surroundings but hate the idea that nature might be somehow organic. A Texan's yard is his inalienable playground, of course, so I'd never criticize. But pecans aren't just messy and aren't just delicious. They are above all native – Dallas/Ft Worth is almost in the center of their natural range – and along with cottonwoods, are the trees best-adapted to line the creeks that cut across North Texas. If they've adapted to your yard, you can certainly replace them with some high-performing hybrid Tree of the Year, but beware: nothing weathers the extremes of this climate quite like pecan trees.

The same can be said for any other trees one plants; as Jeff Gillman points out in How Trees Die, many of the stresses that afflict American trees are brought about by "zone-pushing" and other willful neglect of local environments. Somebody wants some kind of wonderful tree they remember from somewhere else, forgetting that it grew somewhere else precisely because that was somewhere else. So if I ever move away from Arlington, Texas, I have to forget about replicating these pecan trees.

Pecans offers some unwittingly disturbing commentary on agricultural labor in Texas. At one point Manaster starts quoting from some near-medieval (but undated) advice from a certain W.J. Millican of the National Pecan Growers Association. The quotation marks around the material don't seem to signal any irony:

The best picker gets the nuts left by the sorry picker. . . . We find that women are the best hands for picking pecans. (59)
And a little later, Manaster drops the quotes altogether:
Those hired to help need close supervision as they tend to slow down after a while, cluster where the nuts are thickest, have difficulty reaching higher branches, and, on occasion, have been known to steal. (59)
These "sorry pickers" and their co-workers in shelling plants, Manaster explains later, were recruited largely from Tejano and immigrant Mexican communities, paid 5 or 6 cents an hour, moving across the South with the harvest, and exposed to hazardous levels of nutshell dust. Their stories parallel those of many another exploitative agricultural industry, then and now. But the attitude of the Anglo supervisor was that they were all lazy varmints, ready to slack off at best and strip you clean at worst. It's amazing how the tough, cynical cruelty of segregation times still filters into attitudes toward labor in the American fruit-and-nut belt.

Manaster, Jane. Pecans: The story in a nutshell. [The Pecan Tree, 1994.] Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2008.