Reading Time: 1.5 minutes
"Early Work" originally appeared in Issue 18 of Tahoma Literary Review.
Like a chestnut itself, this nugget of an essay opens up, branching into something so much larger. To effect change, to create a work of art, to project something into the world -- that's a lot of metaphor to pack into something as small and ordinary as a chestnut. Carolyn Williams-Noren does it beautifully in this piece of flash nonfiction.
It must be that we couldn’t resist the smoothness, the rolling together, the gleaming together, the unbreakability. I think we were thrilled, when we were finished, at having changed something. At having any effect at all. We were nine.
From Alison’s house we could bike to the school playground, and on her block were chestnuts by the thousands—some still inside their green shields, but many uncoated and wood-like, blank and shining brown.
I had a green, banana-seat bike with a handlebar basket woven of blue and white plastic tubing, and Alison had a BMX bike—sturdy and black—and a backpack, and how did it begin? We filled the basket and the backpack with chestnuts. We ferried them to the playground. We threw and threw and threw. The chestnuts bounced and rolled to the far corners of the ball field, and among the monkey bars, and all the way to the fence, and all the way to the school’s double doors, and we went back for more.
We taught ourselves to coast and throw at once—one hand on the handlebars, one pulling handfuls and flinging. We did this until the blacktop was covered: the whole kickball field, the sidelines, the foursquare court and the tetherball circles, the ground under the covered walkway where in the morning kids would line up to walk behind the teachers into the building.
We wanted to name it our own. We wanted to fill it with what we had picked up and brought there. We thought the chestnuts—on the sidewalk of Steele Street—were going to waste. “I wish,” I’d said to Alison. “I wish we could do something with these.” The clacking handfuls. This was doing: gathering, scattering.
The next day, at school with the hundreds, we learned what we should have known: every child—every single child—loves the pleasure of a chestnut. Of picking up and holding a chestnut. Of throwing a chestnut. Letting it sail, watching its landing, seeing its roll. A hundred children throwing chestnuts.
Reprinted with permission of the author
Williams-Noren had this to say about her essay:
This happened at Lowell Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington, in 1982. Our family moved away the following summer (to Alaska, where there aren’t any chestnut trees) and I lost touch with my co-conspirator Alison and our classmates. So the memory has an unreal, private quality, even though it was a shared experience. I’ve often wondered, “What was that?” When I drafted this piece (several years ago), I thought it would grow into something longer. It didn’t. But somehow it occurred to me to think of Alison’s and my little project as a first attempt at art, and then I started to believe it was complete on its own.
Carolyn Williams-Noren writes, edits, and teaches in Minneapolis.