Will these hands never be clean?

September 29, 2006

This evening I came through the door in a new coat and clean sweater. My wife chipped: AHey, you look kinda presentable B except for the hands.@ Yesterday the comment had been, AI guess I won=t be taking you to a restaurant for a while with those hands.@ I=ve been processing walnuts this week. I discovered half-way through the first morning that walnut hulls do an excellent job of staining whatever they touch. By then it was too late to bother with gloves, and I was separating the nuts from the black goo largely by feel at that point, so I carried on.


Apart from the mess, it=s not a bad job, harvesting walnuts. The weather when they fall is the best of the year: a warm fall day with a strong, dry wind. My Pennsylvania friend Tom complains about walnuts beaning him from a hundred feet up when he clears them off his lawn, but my trees were a good deal more polite when I was gathering. None hit me. I filled three large hampers and all of the 5 gallon pails I could find. Walnut grower Neil Thomas provided advice by email and I went at the job. The first hamper of nuts, the squishy ones, landed in a heap on a piece of flat concrete next to the barn: my threshing floor. The golf cart seems to find a role in just about every task around the farm. Its left rear wheel became my crusher, methodically flattening and breaking down the blackened hulls. Then comfortably seated on my four-wheeled garden cart from Lee Valley Tools, I casually picked up a hull, extracted the nut, tossed it into the tub of water, noted that it did not float, and reached for another. And again, and again, and again. Gradually improvements suggested themselves. Digging just the nuts out of the mess without picking the crushed hulls up worked well. I=d pick all of the nuts I could reach, then move the cart and do it again. Before long I had worked my way through about 20 gallons of nuts. Very few floated, so by Neil=s calculations, they should be viable as seed. The next stage was to clean, bag and chill them sixty days for fall planting. My wife may be a bit surprised the next time she opens the big three-doored fridge she bought for the dream kitchen. My morning=s work fitted easily into one vegetable drawer. I set the humidity to Ahigh@ and cleaned up some of my mess. Except for the hands. No hope there. Two days later I decided to complete the job. Thirty gallons of the freshest nuts still awaited me in the barn, but Neil had warned of mould, so I went at it again. By now I=d established that the hulls could be removed by hand without too much trouble, but I like tools, and my cement mixer was just standing there. I had a mind to get it into the game. The green hulls were harder than the gooey ones, as well. The golf cart barely dented the fresh hulls. I needed more weight. My SUV did no better, so I backed the Massey Harris out of the barn and tore into the pile of nuts with the ribbed tires, front and back. The Massey worked the threshing floor into a fleshy pulp, so I put it back and shovelled some of the mess into the cement mixer. It immediately caked in the back, just like my first few efforts with sand and Portland. Water helped a bit, and then I tossed in a few sharp rocks, just to liven things up. That worked. Walnuts don=t crush from a little rough treatment, even if their hulls turn to mush. After a few loads dumped into the wheelbarrow and separated by hand, I realized that if I overfilled the mixer, the goop that slopped over onto the concrete would not have any nuts or rocks in it, just whipped hulls. A large potash kettle full of rain water next to the barn provided the liquid as I flushed the hulls away from the nuts. This worked pretty well, and I ended up with three pails full of burnished, sinking walnuts. But oh, the mess around the mixer! A two-inch pool of sludge looking like some infernal attempt at whipped cream just lay there, burbling. I averted my eyes, heading for the house (and the new fridge) with my stained hands and next year=s nuts. The second morning=s efforts filled the other vegetable drawer and the deli tray underneath. Completely. They are all triple-bagged, so now all I have to do is keep my wife from looking into the fridge until December 1st.

Meanwhile I=m slinking around like Lady Macbeth, groaning, AWhat? Will these hands never be clean?@

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