My wife and I call them "tassels," but the correct term for these annual visitors from our pecan tree each late-May to early-June is catkins. They're beautiful. Really, they are. Small dangling instances that one day will find their own way into pies, pralines, and brownies through that buttery nut called the pecan. Did you know that pecans are not technically "nuts," but drupes? These are fruit that have a pit that contains the seed. Like a peach pit. (Other examples are coffee, mangoes, olives, plums, apricots.) When we eat a pecan, we're cracking open the pit and eating the seed at its heart. But we call it a nut, and you'll find pecans in a can of Planter's Mixed Nuts. We come by our confusion of drupes and nuts honestly, since the term "pecan" stems from the native Algonquians and means "a nut needing a stone to crack." So there.
"Nut" works for me, for no other reason than the obvious fact that these tassels drive me nuts!
Just check out the "After" picture above. Look closer. Maybe you can make out the red-brown boards peeking through all the green. That's our deck--two hours after we swept it! I'll
spare you pictures of our kitchen and living room floors, the stairs, won't describe for you what a tassel tastes like when you're trying to enjoy dinner on the deck and the catkin makes a sneaky
airdrop into your romaine and spinach salad. These simple pollinated tassels turn into invasive creatures, small chlorophyllous caterpillars, the green-yellow larvae that crawl and creep up your
stairs, stick like ticks to your sock-feet or braid their way into the matted mane of Maya the Wonder Dog. For a brief eternity each spring, they mock even my most disciplined attempts at
sweeping and vacuuming.
It helps during the "Tassel Season," to take a deep breath and step back. To do this several times a day, in fact. To cut back on the caffeine and recall a little botany. Each pecan tree produces both male and female flowers, but always at different times. Some bud out with female blossoms first, then the male ones follow suit later. But other pecan trees, like ours, produce the "male" tassels first. They flower out and pollinate. Later, the small star-shaped "female" flowers will blossom at the tips of the new branches. Now, here's where it all gets interesting and a tad complicated: by the time the female flowers appear, the male flowers have vamoosed with their magical pollen dust. (I love that botanists use the intriguing term "self incompatible" to describe this!) Which means that pecan trees are interdependent. Without one another they cannot bear fruit. Our tree needs another pecan tree, preferably one that's not to far away (around 200 feet or so) and whose male flowers prefer to sleep in and are always running late. That way, this lazy neighboring tree (or cultivar) will be right on time to pollinate our tree and assure that we have pecan pie for Thanksgiving.
Of course, I never knew all of this until I had my own pecan tree. Growing up in eastern Arkansas, pecan groves were common, but we only visited them in the fall to go "pecan pickin'." But now
that I live with this tree all year long, and must visit it daily and care for it throughout all seasons, I can see why some people refer to them as "trash" trees. Notwithstanding the pecans,
they're a mess of tassels, leaves, limbs, and husks. But they're worth it. Besides the pecans, they are a great example of how nature's indifference to us can be redemptive. If we draw close and
pay attention, they serve as an example of the masculine and the feminine energies we all embody. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung encouraged us as men and women to bring these two sides of ourselves
together, the assertive and the receptive, the willful and the willing, to integrate these both internally and within society. Jung knew that such introspection and community would not be easy,
indeed, that it would take heroic energy. Just witness the continual communication divide and inequality that exists between men and women today. We're different, yes. We live in a
"gendered" world, but such a declaration only points out our great need for each other. Mars and Venus are planetary neighbors in the same galaxy. They must share one another's gravitas
in order to honor their respective orbits.
So, using the pecan tree as our shady mentor, we see that delicious pecans can't happen without the messy havoc of pecan trees. Pecans are the product of male and female energies coming together in a fruitful way. In order to do this, they cannot live in isolation. They "need" another tree or two nearby in order to integrate the male and female energies they bear. In their own way, they mirror our own call as unique and more highly complex amalgams of yearning. We long for both individual growth and authentic community. What about all the relational hassles that drive us nuts at times--the tassels, limbs, husks and leaves? They are the best we can do, given the season. They all have their role to play in pushing us toward real wholeness, where both personal integrity and community matter, and a more fruitful life before God awaits, tassels and all.
I'll leave you with this wonderful poem by Arkansas poet Jo McDougall:
Coming home to visit my parents' graves,
I enter the house where I was born.
My mother sits at a table, sewing,
her eyes a deepening blue.
My father comes in from the fields.
Until now I have never known
that intent young man,
that slender woman
who lean toward each other
and touch hands
and rise together to climb the stairs,
long vistas of the fields dissolving
as dusk puts down its roots.
~from Satisfied with Havoc (Autumn House Press)