September 24, 1931 – What Our Children Gather in Forest and Field

This article by Rev. Birkmann and translated by Ray Martens first appeared in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt,Giddings, Texas, on September 24, 1931.

What interests them is not primarily the cotton and whatever else is cultivated in the field, nor in the first instance the firewood taken from the forest, but, instead, all kinds of fruit which grows wild and which they like to gather in order to find refreshment, something special for the palate and jaws.

In early summer, dewberries and wild plums are found, and perhaps also here and there maypops, as they are called, which one found in the fields in prior times—I do not know whether they are still to be found today. In the fall, there was a great selection of fruits and nuts. I shall name some of them: pecans and hickory nuts, wild grapes, especially muscadine, and huckleberries, which grow on very low shrubs. Beyond these, persimmons. If my children were to read these lines, they would say that their papa failed to mention many things which appeared so desirable to them and which they often sought. Red haws and prickly pears [literally “cactus figs”] and much more. Yes, there would be an entire catalog if one wished to name everything.

But what is it that provides so much charm to such gathering of wild produce that one enjoys remembering them as an adult? Certainly not primarily that one got something to eat, for one often had better and tastier things in the pantry, but the love innate in people for open nature, to get out and wander around in field and forest, especially if the experience is shared by a number of children or even an adult. One looks here, another looks there, and then they call out to each other, “Come here. I found this or that,” and then one shows the other what he has, and then they part again, and, if they become tired and hungry, they eat their lunch if they brought something like that with them.

In many instances, a gun would be brought along on such excursions, and then one would watch for rabbits or often squirrels or some other wild animal. If perhaps one then comes into an area where there are ripe persimmons and watches carefully to see if something alive shows up, then probably one will come face to face with one or more raccoons, for they are positively in love with persimmons. Wherever there were a number of such trees with ripe fruit, I have encountered raccoons in broad daylight, although otherwise they usually remain hidden during the day. And I have seen the tracks and evidence of how many may have gathered at night. They, the raccoons, devour the fruit entirely.

Not everyone, however, loves to hunt. Some have an aversion to amusing themselves in this way. Our deceased esteemed Dr. Franz Pieper in St. Louis, who was a great friend of nature, told me that he knew no greater pleasure than to go into the forest and to look at the large, majestic trees, but he would not tolerate hunting. But, of course, he did not grow up in Texas.

The trees, shrubs, and plants which grow wild here are the following: mulberries, persimmons, huckleberries, plums, sloes, red haws, black haws, wild grapes (three or more varieties) dewberries, blackberries, raspberries, mayhops, prickly pears, pecans, hickory nuts, walnuts, hollyhocks, and acorns (an edible kind). That is all I can bring together right now. But I am not so well acquainted with such matters. Consider, too, that there are numerous varieties of the items named above.

Let’s go back once again to a good pecan harvest, as it is called. Some people say that such nuts do not exist in the north. To be sure, that is the case in the far north, as in Wisconsin and the like, but there are pecans in the area of St. Louis. In the American Bottom, in Illinois across the river from St. Louis, my home area, at least in earlier times, there were large pecan trees. I did not live in the bottom itself, actually ten miles away, but, yet, we did receive nuts in the fall from people who had such trees on their land. At that time there was no exchange of products from distant places. One could buy no pecans where pecans did not grow. But here in Texas these nuts surely thrive better than in the north since they are more nearly native here. There were fences around the fields in our Lee County in earlier years, but not like today around the pastures. Whatever was not a field was not fenced. One could pick up pecans anywhere they grew. You did not first have to ask permission. Now and then, I too would go out with the children to look for pecans. That was forty or fifty years ago. Understandably, times have changed. One must be satisfied with pecans which are given to you or which you can buy. They are cheap enough in our area, a really inexpensive food in relation to its food value. Beyond that, a rare tidbit, if you have someone to crack the nuts.The grape is another item which grows wild much more luxuriantly here in Texas. Never up north have I seen such thick grape vines which grow to the top of the tallest trees or even cover a tree entirely with vines and foliage. And that so plentifully and repeatedly in the sandy post oak woods. Sadly, the grape wine with so much promise, the one named mustang, is almost undrinkable. But that grape does nourish many living things, and people did make wine from it in times past, wine which certainly required lots of sugar, and sugar was expensive. And lacking here are the cellars in which wine can ferment properly. In this hot climate, the fermentation process goes too quickly, and the wine becomes bitter. I have often received a glass and was pleased if the glass was not too large. But, properly prepared, even this wine can be refreshing. Muscadine wine is more nearly praiseworthy than mustang, but seldom have I seen it growing. Only perhaps on the Middle Yegua did I find several vines with ripe fruit, and they tasted quite good. Many others probably had known better directions and found many muscadine grapes. But one did not divulge where.

There are other kinds of wild grapes here in the county, one of these called winter grapes. I am not well acquainted with them. In my childhood home in Illinois, one paid little attention to wild grapes. Even though more kinds were to be found there, what one saw for the most part was planted vineyards. Virtually every farmer had a vineyard and an orchard. Every farmer made apple cider and almost every one made regular wine. The most common grape grown there was called the Catawba, and, when fall came, the presses were set in motion, and the juice was placed in the cellar in large barrels, where one saw also saw barrels in which wine was still fermenting, and others which contained wine from the previous years or still older. If company came, a large jug of wine or cider was brought up from the cellar. Later the cultivation of grapes suffered greatly in that area because of all kinds of damage from insects and other causes.

There is no lack of berries “in the merry month of May, when all the buds burst out,” as one sang in the old fatherland, but here the buds burst out already in February when the dewberries bloom. They ripen in May, around the time of Ascension Day. It was always a joy for my children when they looked for berries in someone’s pasture with his friendly permission and invitation, or if they could take themselves to places where the land was still not fenced where they knew that many berries were growing. If only others had not previously already looked there—that was the only concern. Sometimes they were lucky and brought home three or four buckets full, on other occasions not so many, but they did have a good time and maybe even saw a copperhead.

We now have here in Giddings many more berries than we saw previously, and the children have scattered, but our berries here, although welcome and useful, do not have the charm of those that grew wild.

In my childhood in Illinois not far from the Mississippi, there were still extensive forests in earlier times, and in lighted places all kinds of plants and fruits which are totally unknown here in Texas grew, varieties which have become more and more scarce also there in Illinois.

As a child, I often found strawberries in the wild. They were small but very sweet smelling.

Also what were called May apples grew in shady places where the trees were not as thick. It is an annual plant whose botanical name is Podophyllum, and one of the strongest purgatives was made from the plant. The fruit is about the size of a small hen’s egg. We did not eat the peel, but only the sweet-sour pulp in the middle of the fruit. One could not eat much of it, no matter how good these May apples tasted to us children.

There were also wild cherries, which were much sought after because medicines were made from them. Wild cherries were a component part of many patent medicines. This variety of cherry is small, much smaller than a domestic cherry, but the trees on which they grew are large.

During the summer we also had blackberries and raspberries, which grew especially on the rail fences which remained around the fields back then. In the fall, apart from the already mentioned pecans which grew only in the bottom, there were several varieties of hickory nuts, which you could eat much as you did pecans, and they were quite delicious. Also walnuts, for black walnut trees grew along the creek along with a variety of oak trees, in short, an abundant stand of forest the like of which we never see in the post oak region. But every area has its good qualities, and among the post oaks many things are beautiful and wonderful, so much so that one would never finish if he wanted to study and get to the bottom of it. Mr. John Kieschnick found not fewer than some forty varieties of wood in the woods on his property near the San Antonio Prairie. And, if his children wished to count the fruits which grew wild there, these too might have been about forty.

G. Birkmann, pastor emeritus
Giddings, Texas