Piñon pickers carry on tradition

By Cody Hooks The Taos News
Posted 10/3/15

Beverly Vasquez sat against a tree with her sister Loretta Leichtle less than 50 feet from the edge of the pavement of State Road 522, just a little north of Arroyo Hondo. A couple of little kids played in the dirt while everyone else — moms, …

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Piñon pickers carry on tradition

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Beverly Vasquez sat against a tree with her sister Loretta Leichtle less than 50 feet from the edge of the pavement of State Road 522, just a little north of Arroyo Hondo. A couple of little kids played in the dirt while everyone else — moms, dads, sisters, in-laws — sat under the trees like Vasquez, filling up old coffee cans and plastic buckets, piñon nut by piñon nut.

The Vasquez family drove from Denver, where a plastic bag of piñon can go for $30 a pound. But Beverly Vasquez came up from Española, and as she told The Taos News Saturday morning just before lunch, they know about the piñon.

For the past several weeks, trucks and cars have lined the roadways of Northern New Mexico, from Questa to the foothills behind Taos, while piñon pickers can be seen on their hands and knees, or sitting comfortably on a pillow, taking part in a tradition spanning generations.

While picking up the plentiful piñon, Vasquez told of her grandma who was from the hills of Petaca, not far from Ojo Caliente. “She would climb up to the top of the mountain and pick piñon all day until she couldn’t anymore.” Her grandma took a small lunch and a bucket every day in the early autumn. By the end of the season, big flour sacks filled with piñon sat in the corner of the closet.

Traditionally, piñon fed people. But these days, the tradition looks more like what the Vasquez family was up to — spending time in the montes, having fun, and being together as a family in an evermore fragmented and high-paced world.

“We laugh at each other and joke with each other,” Vasquez said, picking up a few more piñon nuts with every sentence. “It’s just nice to have the whole family together.”

“It’s hard work, but it’s worth it,” she said, at least for the grownups.

The little kids, she said, picked piñon for about five minutes first thing in the morning before cacti, trees, bugs and the expansive forest grabbed their attention. Two teenage boys were doing much better at filling their buckets.

Pillow cases of piñon are already piling up in the back seats of their trucks.

A good year

It’s not just Taoseños who are out picking piñon. Lora Arciniega, a silviculturist with Carson National Forest, said her office gets calls daily from all over New Mexico and Southern Colorado as folks check on the quality and quantity of the piñon harvest.

“We’ve been getting calls since early this spring,” Arciniega said.

This is a good year for piñon — a bright point gleefully and excitedly touted by the tree scientist as much as the piñoneros out on their hands and knees.

Though you can find piñon nuts during late September and early October just about any year, this sort of “bumper crop” comes only every now and again, in cycles between four to seven years, Arciniega said.

Of course, like everything in Northern New Mexico, the schedule is nothing if not prone to change.

“We got hit pretty hard around 2004,” she said, explaining the piñon beetles caused a lot of longtime nut-baring trees to die. Add to that the prolonged droughts, and 2015 seems to be the best piñon harvest in nearly a decade.

It takes three growing seasons for a piñon nut to fully develop and about 25 years before a tree will even start putting on piñon nuts. “But once it’s 75 to 100 years old, it can really bear some cones in large quantities and can do it for a few centuries,” she said.

Many of the oldest trees were cut down for firewood in the late 1800s, meaning most of the forests in Taos County, on BLM land and in peoples’ back yards, have trees of only 100 to 150 years old. But that is still plenty of nut-producing trees to plop down under and get to picking.

Arciniega said most of the cones she’s seen around here have six to 10 nuts per cone. So on any of the large trees, that can add up to 10 or even 20 pounds of piñon nuts per tree.

The cones, she said, are usually found only in the top third of the tree, prompting an essential element of the piñon tradition — climbing up high into the dagger-like branches to shake the tree just enough to loosen the nuts from their cones.

Arciniega grew up in Questa but her family didn’t collect piñon nuts every year. In fact, it’s not something she’s done in a long time; she and her family just moved back to the area after working and living in Oregon for many years. Seeing the piñon pickers on the side of the road conjures up all sorts of memories, she said.

“Oh yeah, it takes you back,” she said.

They went collecting recently, and just like old times, they had to separate the piñon nuts like beans, keeping only the dark, heavy piñons and tossing out the light-colored duds — “and the occasional rabbit turd.”

Though rabbits don’t eat the nuts; humans are just one of the many creatures that do. Piñon jays, scrub jays, stellar jays, Clark’s nutcrackers and all manner of rodents, from squirrels to mice, actually depend on the nut for life.

On good years like this one, there’s plenty for all.

Sharing the season

People joke that out-of-towners drive past the piñoneros dumbfounded as to why so many people are down on their hands and knees like forest critters under the piñon canopy. But for the open-minded and willing-to-work Taos transplant, there’s opportunity to gather not just the nuts, but the cultural importance of the hard work as well.

On Saturday (Sept. 26), the Bureau of Land Management hosted a piñon picking celebration in Wild Rivers in the Río Grande del Norte National Monument north of Questa.

John Bailey, manager of the monument, called the event “the most unique National Public Lands Day event in the county.” While other national monuments have some hunting and fishing, and perhaps even wood collecting, Bailey said, “we’ve got to be the only monument with piñon collecting.”

He called the presidential proclamation that brought the monument into being “remarkable” for the extent to which it highlights and ensures the protection of the human landscape and all the traditional uses of the area.

The monument’s protection of the unique human quality to the landscapes of the area is thanks in large part to the “local experts,” like the heirs to the land grants, who were brought to the planning table early on, he said.

Esther García, the former mayor of Questa, told The Taos News, “my ancestors knew what to do with the land.”

García, Kate Cisneros and Jeanie Masters came to the celebration Saturday to share not only their stories, but their basic, piñon-for-dummies instructions, which essentially amount to — get down, pick ‘em up, rinse ‘em off and roast ‘em.

You can’t pick them while standing, but must humble yourself before the trees. You can’t be lazy when roasting, but must keep a close eye and constantly test them after six minutes for the perfect, light brown meat of the nut.

Of course, you don’t have to do it the traditional way (in the oven or over a fire), they said, for the microwave works just as well.

Regardless, if you’re doing it right, they said, your hands and clothes will be sticky with sap and your joints will ache.

Ensuring the strong resilience of traditional uses of the land are playing a big part in the future of not just the monument and the BLM, but all public lands in America, Bailey said.

“Our future lies with a broader mix of uses,” he said, even as some of those uses are centuries old and require nothing more than a bucket and some time.

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