An oak gall among autumn leaves. Photo by Dana Wilde

“What’s this?” Bonnie said one long-ago late-summer afternoon, before ticks had overrun the woods and mayflies still plastered the windshield in spring.

She held up a shiny, speckled red ball a bit larger than an acorn. Me being the backyard naturalist and science fictionist in the house, and everybody else being merely curious, she expected I’d have an answer, or at least a weird speculation.

“I have no idea,” I said. “Where did you get it?”

“Jack found it under the oak tree by the Shed,” she said.

She handed it to me. It was smooth and looked like some kind of fruit or nut, although it had no apparent stem end. I went outside to look around.

Around the Shed (which outside looks like a run-down tool shed, but inside is a library with wall-to-wall books) are spruce, pine, beech, oak, maple, hemlock and cedar trees, none of which drops small round fruits. That I know of. The Shed is attached to the garage, on the other side of which were a red-osier dogwood, some ash trees and the carcass of an elm that died so suddenly you’d swear it had a heart attack. But they don’t grow acorn-sized fruit either. We’d never noticed this thing before.

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I searched the ground among the acorns. Soon I spotted one of the red balls and picked it up. Weird. Were they a rare type of acorn? Or maybe they were pods of uncertain origin that would send out tendrils in the night, fasten themselves to our sleeping faces and clone us into expressionless human-alien hybrids that would dispose of our withered bodies in Wednesday’s trash.

Maybe not.

Back in the kitchen I got out the tree and flower books and paged through but found nothing resembling the pods, as we were now calling them. I gave up for the time being and left them on the kitchen table, hoping the tendrils would not be long enough to reach the bedroom.

The next evening, the pods were noticeably drying out. Two days later they were downright shriveled, like oversized raisins. When I went back out to the Shed, where the science fiction novels actually are housed — out of range of those who are merely curious — I picked up five or six more pods and rechecked the tree and flower books — which are kept in the house itself — but still found no resemblances.

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Next morning, we decided to solve the problem before baby creatures with prehistoric teeth started erupting from our chest cavities. We set about to cut the thing open.

The truth, as often happens, was one of those disturbing natural phenomena that generate, rather than result from, science fiction. It was not a fruit. It was a growth.

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Using a jackknife as a scalpel, we sliced open the pod. Inside was a white worm, or more accurately, a larva. The larva, we eventually discovered, was that of a gall wasp, a tiny nonstinging flying insect. The gall wasp laid its egg in an oak leaf and left a chemical that induced the oak tree to grow this fleshy pod, or gall, around the egg. The larva grew inside the gall and would feed on it. Some oak galls (aka oak apples) grow right inside the acorn, and some, like the ones around the Shed, grow outside and fall out of the trees.

We stopped worrying aliens might be coming for us in the night.

Science describes what’s happening; science fiction imagines what might be happening, in its thoughtful modes anyway. We started thinking we should pay more attention to the things scientists do worry about. Like vanishing insects, and carbon emissions.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His book “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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