Because each year of your life amounts
         to less of your life
than the year before, the things in it change you less.

Horse chestnuts, for example,
         beside you in the almost-
ready-for-morning frosted grass

as you walk to your car, or
         one horse chestnut in particular,
its dry spiked ball on a flail

from your last game of Dungeons & Dragons.
         What would you maul?
Who will you defend?

Its water-processed flour makes
         a regional famine food.
It may be used to send a code,

a kind of cuneiform
         rolled on a page across dirt. It may be burnt
but will not keep you warm.

Speckled, bruised, unopened, dried out enough
         so that its ends proceed
to hold its core above ground, it has already lost

its spectacular, armour-piercing, collective need.
         It wants to return
to its original edition, or evolution,

when it could have more give, or more to give,
         its smooth combination
of barbs and
         hooks enough to guard a single seed.

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Vol. 45 No. 21 · 2 November 2023

‘Its water-processed flour makes a regional famine food,’ Stephanie Burt writes in her poem ‘Horse Chestnuts’ (LRB, 5 October). Horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) are actually poisonous, and even if collected in large quantities and leached – i.e. soaked, to reduce the toxins – are of rather low food value, so I wonder where they have ever been extensively used thus?

Michael Weiner’s Earth Medicine, Earth Food (1972) suggests that A. californica (not hippocastanum) was used by Native Americans in their practice of ‘slow-roasting the nuts (which would have rendered the saponins harmless) and then cutting them into thin slices, putting them into a cloth bag and rinsing them in a stream for 2-5 days’. Whether in famine conditions it does not say. A better use, aside from playing conkers, would be to process them in a similar way to extract the saponins for use in laundry, though it would be rather a chore.

Sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa), on the other hand, are delicious. I have spent this afternoon gathering them in the woods to boil and eat. Avoid the shrivelled or puffy ones, which have already been targeted by the chestnut weevil (Curculio elephas).

Dariel Francis
Tunbridge Wells, Kent

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