My foster dogs love hickory nuts. It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. Every morning when we go out for their pre-breakfast walk, we end up in the back corner of the yard where four or five shagbark hickory trees stand with a goodly crop of nuts beneath them.
You don’t want to park your car under a hickory tree in the fall. They drop tons of nuts and for several weeks I will hear them popping as they find purchase on the occasional hard surface. It can be a little dangerous to walk around out there! During the drop, the nuts are available in abundance and the pups need only search for the ones that have lost their acrid husks. By this time of the year, though, most of the nuts are gone or rotting and they have to do some serious rooting through the leaves and muck to find a good one. It’s really pretty cute to watch. They get them in their mouths and crack them open with their teeth and you can see their excitement for the little bit of meat the hard shells hold. It doesn’t seem worth the effort to me, but they clearly enjoy the hunt and reward. However, all I have to do is mention breakfast for them to remember that there is far easier foraging inside and abandon the search.
When the pups came to me last winter in the midst of one of those crazy single-digit cold snaps, I named them Hansel and Gretel because they are a brother and sister in search of their home. Some Berry students had found them and a brother living by a dumpster. The brother had remnants of a nearby trash bag stuck around him, indicating they had been dropped there in the bag, left to die. The students were able to find a home for him, but had nowhere for these two to go. When I learned of the trouble, I invited them to bring them to my house, where my heated doghouse could keep them warm until we could find another situation. That was a year ago, and I am very much still hoping to find a better home for them, but they have decidedly won a place in my heart.
Hansel and Gretel are sweet, funny and clever dogs, but they do carry a few scars from their struggles. When I discovered their fascination with foraging for nuts, I wondered if it was a habit from their days of living on their own. They were nearly a year old when they were found, so they had probably spent several months, at least, fending for themselves on whatever they could find. It had to be a hard existence, one a lot of us can’t relate to in our copiously consumptive lifestyles, but there are sadly many who live with the reality of not knowing where their next meal will come from. Foraging for me, and most of you reading this, means scanning the pantry, fridge or list of restaurants, not looking for handouts, road kill or castoffs. There but by the grace of God, as they say.
I mentioned the dogs’ search for nuts to a friend and he reminded me of the old Appalachian tradition of allowing domestic hogs to roam the woods and root for food. Pig snouts are excellent for rooting and they would seek out bulbs, roots, insects and small animals, and in the fall they would forage on tree nuts, just like Hansel and Gretel. In reference to this practice there was a common phrase, “Root, hog or die,” that meant that you either find what you need to survive or you die. I have some very deep and wide Appalachian roots on my mother’s side, but I had never heard the phrase. It apparently dates back before 1834 and both sides of the Civil War had songs that referenced the phrase. Woody Guthrie recorded a song about the idea in 1927, and it was still common enough in 1950 that June Carter Cash had minor success with a song by the title about marrying a man who refused to provide, forcing her to fend for herself.
“My old man don’t work at all
No, he won’t even try
If I don’t work, I’ll starve to death
It’s root, hog, or die
Root, hog, or die
Just me, myself, and I
If I don’t work, I’ll starve to death
It’s root, hog, or die”
It’s a really catchy and funny tune, making light of the need to be able to stand on your own two feet, a lesson we all have to learn at some point in life. Well, mostly. When I think of how rarely many of us truly need to root through the muck for mere survival, I realize that we would have to have a different context for the phrase to still apply. Heck, most domesticated hogs aren’t left to the practice these days, either. Hansel and Gretel are thankful that they can leave that tradition behind for tasty fodder in their new home. And because of that happy change, they are slowly softening around the edges from the desperate defense they felt while living so leanly, and they are learning to trust humans more than ever before.
It occurs to me that we modern Americans could put the concept into play when it comes to making change in our lives. We can resolve, plan, pontificate, declare, hope and pray for the dreams we have in mind, but in order for most things to come true, you’ve got to root, hog or watch that dream die. After all, a little bit of good old-fashioned muck never hurt anybody.
Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.