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At twilight today a legion of costumed children will pester their neighbors for gifts of candy and sweets.
“Halloween” carries distant echoes of All Saints’ Day and the hallowed (or haunted) evening that precedes it. Protestants wary of both spirits and saints claim November 1 as Reformation Day. I could still point you to the house near my childhood home where my friends and I were once rewarded, on ringing the doorbell, with an apple and a Reformation Day tract. We skipped that house in later years, needless to say.
Perhaps it’s a far-fetched analogy, but isn’t Halloween rather like the time when the famished people of Israel pestered God endlessly until they were rewarded with a gift of food?
To sustain them in the barren desert, the Books of Moses relate, the Israelites were sent manna from heaven. We do not learn much about it, except that it lay scattered on the ground each morning. In Exodus 16 it is white and flaky, in Numbers 11 more like a resin. In both accounts it is used to make bread, and John’s gospel (chapter 6) calls it “bread from heaven.” Not much resemblance to peanut butter cups or jelly beans.
Whatever manna was – the Hebrew word means something like “what the heck is this stuff?” – it sustained the people when they had no other source of food. (Except quail, the other part of the providential package.)
I’m going to go out on a limb here – pardon the pun – and suggest that the manna may have come from chestnut trees. What other food can be collected in great abundance from the ground? What else is as tasty and nutritious as chestnuts, and falls daily from above your head?
The eyebrows of some readers may be rising if they recall the alternative I suggested here a year ago for the Edenic apple. (See “The Peaches of Paradise”) Bear with me. Literalism can go wrong in biblical interpretation in so many ways. Granted, “manna” probably does not mean “tasty morsel in a spiky shell,” but the analogy has merit all the same.
Chestnuts, I learned recently, are an important food crop today here in Michigan, as far north as they can be grown. We are speaking not of the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), a magnificent tree that once made up a quarter of the forest cover in Eastern states, its broad canopy shading town squares across the continent. “The redwood of the East,” some called it.
At the start of the twentieth century a viral blight hitchhiked to New York with introduced Chinese chestnut trees and swept through forests and town squares, killing an estimated three billion of their native cousins. Only a few isolated stands remain, and they are not viable commercially.
Populating today’s orchards are other members of the same genus: European chestnut (C. sativa), a Japanese variety (C. crenata), and the infamous Chinese chestnut (C. mollissima). The nuts of the first can be as large as small plums, the others more like grapes.
I have lived three-fourths of my life in Michigan, reveling each year in the waves of fruit that bear witness to the extravagant love of the Creator for the undeserving: spring strawberries, summer blueberries and peaches and plums, apples and pears in autumn. Farmers’ markets beckon with new colors and new tastes every few weeks.
Not once had I tasted, or even heard of, Michigan chestnuts until a month ago. My wife and a friend were out canvassing for candidates in next week’s election. Sitting on his Grand Haven porch, ready to chat, was a farmer who, with his brother, maintains a large chestnut orchard in a rural part of our county.
For only one day each autumn, the orchard is open for public harvesting. I had to be there. What greeted me on arrival was as astonishing as manna in the desert. Under each of the trees, widely spaced across the fields, was a rich carpet of greens and browns. There were small, spiky spheres the size of tennis balls, some green and some brown, that had encased the nuts on the tree. These were the burrs, which burst open and fall with the nuts to the ground below when they ripen.
In a brighter shade of brown, catching the sunlight, dazzling the eye, were thousands of shiny chestnuts. Looking a bit like overgrown acorns, a bit like exquisite carvings of polished wood, they lay scattered all across the ground, waiting to be picked up. Just like manna.
I was far from alone in the harvest. A hundred others were filling their bags as I filled mine, conversing in Bosnian, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and occasionally English. Americans are mostly unaware that chestnuts drop from trees in such abundance in their midst, knowing them only from one line in one Christmas song. Europeans and Asians prize them highly.
In half an hour I had collected as many as I could imagine using – 17 pounds. Just ahead of me in the weighing line, a Chinese woman had gathered 84 pounds. They would all be roasted and eaten by her family, she said, within a month.
Just as unexpected, and just as uplifting, a gift of grace was the farmer overseeing the harvest, who welcomed me warmly and recalled his conversation with my wife. He and his brother established the orchard about thirty years ago, he told me, when they were looking for another orchard crop to supplement their cherries, peaches and apples. They got off to a rocky start. “First we bought 25 trees,” he told me. “They all died. So we bought 100 more. They died too. So we bought 100 more. Some of them survived, and we finally figured out what they needed.” Today their orchard, the largest of some 140 across the state, covers 32 acres.
Just two miles away is the site where the farmer’s forebears homesteaded in the 1840s, arriving one year after Albertus Van Raalte founded the town of Holland. Both sites are in the district served by the Patmos Public Library in Jamestown, which was catapulted into national news in August when voters defeated a library millage because of reports that some of its books depict LGBTQ individuals in a favorable light. The millage is on the November ballot again, and there are “vote yes on library millage” placards at the orchard entrance. (Some “vote no” placards are not far away.)
“Look at what Van Raalte did when he arrived here,” said the farmer: “within two years he founded Hope College! He understood that, whatever your politics or theology, education is as important as food and shelter. What an embarrassment to be famous for trying to close the public library!” (I will not name the man here, since I am not sure how to contact him to confirm my quotes and obtain permission – but if he reads this blog he will recognize himself.)
I spent twice as much time listening to tales of farming and family and church affairs as I had gathering chestnuts, and it was time well spent. I don’t expect to plant chestnut trees at my home – they would not survive the gales that blow in off Lake Michigan – but I will certainly be out harvesting them again next fall.
Did manna arrive in spiky burrs? Probably not. And in one sense manna and chestnuts are opposites: manna spoiled if not eaten the same day (except on the Sabbath), but the chestnuts I gathered on one harvest day, kept moist in my refrigerator, will enrich the stuffing of Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys. They have a sweet and delicate flavor, provide many vitamins and minerals, and are very low in fat. I could not find comparable nutrition information for manna. But both, reliable sources inform me, make tasty bread and cakes.
Chestnuts like manna – at least for me, uninformed as I was until recently – are an utterly unexpected gift of grace, to be treasured and received with thanks. The happy crowd from many nations that joined me in the harvest offered a welcome antidote to the suspicion and division with many regard our increasingly diverse society. And when properly prepared – our favorite method so far, among many, is brief steaming and a bit of butter for the finish – chestnuts are a foretaste of heaven.
But if I hand them out to superheroes and princesses at my door tonight, the recipients are unlikely to be impressed, and they will remember to skip my house next year.