The only other trees we could identify were chestnut trees, though without their shiny brown pearls encased in itchy balls and dangling like sneakers from the telephone wires, we would not recognize them from any other tree. Of the furrowed bark, or the serrated leaf, or the symmetry of the chestnut tree, we knew nothing. But we knew where to find them on the campus of Fordham University four blocks away. Every autumn, as the seasons turned, the kids in the neighborhood somehow instinctively knew it was time to gather the chestnuts. In a rite handed down from one generation to the next, with boasts and dares and dreams of neighborhood glory, we’d open the itchy burrs and lift out the shiny chestnuts, rubbing their gleaming hardness between our fingers and our thumbs. To harden them even more, we’d soak the nuts in white vinegar in a mayonnaise jar and go to sleep that night with visions of grandeur in our heads. Some days later, we’d remove the soaking chestnuts and drive a nail through their cores. Then we’d slip a shoelace through the hole, tie a knot on the end, and head for the streets looking for conquest.
The object of “chestnut fights,” as we called them, was not to beat each other with them, though that inadvertently happened when we’d miss the intended target from time to time. The idea was to hold high the shoelace, then lift the tethered chestnut as far back as you could and fire it at the chestnut your opponent dangled in the air. If your chestnut eventually cracked your foe’s, you added his total number of victories to your own and strutted about the block in search of another victim. It was a ritual, I was years later to discover, that must have been brought across the sea with the Irish immigrants in the 19th century, for there it is in the pages of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with its reference to a “seasoned hacking chestnut, the conqueror of forty.” Well, we’d hack away at those dangling brown beauties until the next street game vied for our attention—spinning tops, or Skully, or stickball in the spring, by which time we were once again largely oblivious of trees
With the sun dappling the woodlands, birds trilling, the trees wear wool in a cool summer breeze. I am a far cry from the urban landscape of Tiebout Avenue and Banana Park. This is a place of soothing harmony with its natural surroundings, a passageway, in what Joseph Campbell calls “a threshold moment” when one is poised between two places, two worlds, two realities. Not surprisingly, it strikes a chord in me. In an instance I am reminded that Nature is a part of us, and we a part of it, reminded that no matter where we are, we are one with the earth.