Acorn-stomping Anyone?

Yesterday I read an article by Ian Frazier in the Nov. 7, 2005 issue of The New Yorker. The article is called: Pensées D’Automne and appears in the Shouts & Murmurs section of the magazine. I’ve read it several times since. I am fascinated by the way his words flow at a pace that’s as easy as the leisurely autumnal morning walk that he is describing. The closest analogy would be a train ride where each passing scene is framed by the window for an instant and then it passes as your eyes focus on something else. I was happy to board his train of thoughts for sometime.

Fall or autumn in America is always a memorable event, especially in the north east where some people are even described as leaf-peepers, they take to the roads in mid-September and head for New England just to stick their heads out of the window and absorb the fall colors at their peak, spotting hues they didn’t know existed in deciduous trees, interlaced with the greens in the evergreen gymnosperms; an innocuous yet magical activity that has the power to overwhelm, the power to soothe the soul.

Ian’s article, as the title suggests, is about his thoughts during a crisp fall morning walk. He talks about the special heavy, shin-high boots he’s wearing, a “Danner Foothill model with Vibram soles”, that he declares are perfect for, take a guess….”acorn-stomping”!! It was this talk of acorn-stomping that grabbed my attention in the first paragraph and I was hooked, I had to read on and discover for myself what acorn-stomping was all about.

Ian managed to convey the exhilaration that he felt at this favorite childhood activity. His Danner Foothill boots apparently have a “sweet spot” in the heels and as he walks along the oak-tree lined sidewalks of his New Jersey neighborhood he devotes considerable thought to a strategy that would maximize his satisfaction from this activity. He says, “Hit a single acorn just so and you get a satisfying, shivery tingle between the shoulder blades. Hit a series of acorns, first right, then left, then right, and so on as long as the random distribution of acorns on the sidewalk permits, each acorn struck square on the sweet spot, crunch, crunch, crunch, never breaking stride – well, that’s what you’re looking for.”

Now this article is really not all about acorn-stomping, it is about present day America, about the deep satisfaction derived from an effectively stomped acorn, the sound of its gunshot-like report and how disheartening and jarring it is to stomp on it the wrong way, in a way where one fails to make it pop and it just whooshes out its contents in a mess.

While walking and stomping he wonders about his reasons for doing so. Perhaps it is a way of working out his frustrations, his deep dissatisfaction with the rising healthcare costs in the country. But then again it can’t be because the more he thinks about the issues that are plaguing this country the more inaccurate his stomping becomes and the more unpleasant the activity. For an inaccurately stomped acorn, leaves one with a “jangling, teeth-grinding wrongness”. He compares this “wrongness” to the way certain theologians have described sin, as an “apartness from God”. This gets him thinking about the state of his own health which is why he’s walking in the first place. He talks about the obesity of this nation, a country where even the raccoons and squirrels are getting morbidly obese by rifling through suburban garbage cans, scurrying away with toaster waffles in their mouths. He talks about innocuous events that could shape the future. He thinks about these vast spaces, this land of plenty where deer are found dead on the road while we build homes in their natural habitats and the gourmet smells that rise up from our manicured, never-grazed lawns as we mow down the wild onions that are a part of many a lawn.

He talks about Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez’s visit to America and his comment about 99% of the cars, rather SUV’s, on the road being driven by a single occupant and how unsustainable a mode of life this really is. Hugo decides to sell Venezuelan oil to the poor in South Bronx, at half price, and an evangelist is prompt enough to issue a death threat on Hugo’s life.

As an American I can appreciate Ian’s concerns, I have felt the jarring, discordant note in many an aspect of my own life. A sense that things are essentially wrong and that this way of life cannot possibly be sustainable. However, thinking about comparing this to an acorn-stomping autumnal activity as a metaphor for contentment or discontent is what makes me feel like a stranger in this rather strange land. I could never write an article such as this one because this wasn’t my childhood. I have lived in America for seventeen years and this is the first time I’ve heard about this favorite childhood pastime. It is a detail I could never absorb, a metaphor I could never use.

This makes me realize how right Maugham really was when he said:

“It is very difficult to know people and I don’t think one can ever really know any but one’s own countrymen. For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they were born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives’ tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, and the God they believed in. It is all these things that have made them what they are, and these are the things that you can’t come to know by hearsay, you can only know them if you have lived them. You can only know them if you are them. And because you cannot know persons of a nation foreign to you except from observation, it is difficult to give them credibility in the pages of a book. Even so subtle and careful an observer as Henry James, though he lived in England for forty years, never managed to create an Englishman who was through and through English.”

But does this passage assume that one could feel at home, living and breathing the inherent, generational culture and memories in one’s so-called “homeland” as opposed to one’s adopted home? What if no place feels like home? Perhaps I should try some acorn-stomping along my own sidewalks and see if I can get to experience the sweet satisfaction of the shivery tingle that could start at the heel and travel up to a spot between the shoulder blades, perhaps practice could make me perfect at this exercise and then finally I’ll feel at home, enhancing the American dream by “living” the American “fall”.

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