Friday, June 25, 2010

Just a Twisted Old Thing - Austin

Countless black walnut saplings grow on our property. They come up thick around a twisted old tree. A number of years ago I transplanted them in the hundreds -- without success. Little dry sticks protruded through the grass all over the field, brittle sticks that snapped off and disappeared. I next tried pails full of walnuts, simply tramping the field with a shovel and a bucket, and much like planting potatoes, dropped a few walnuts into the cut behind the shovel and moved on. Now they are taking over.

Black walnuts are a mixed blessing. These have an exceptionally hard, thick-shelled nut with little nutmeat in them, although that doesn't discourage the squirrels. Shelling them for the rest of us requires a hammer, a pig-headed stubbornness, and body armour. The pieces fly like shrapnel. The leaves and twigs are toxic to horses, and somehow the tree poisons the ground around it, so few things can grow close.

Our property borders an old gravel pit. Topsoil is thin and the ground dries rapidly. Getting trees well established has proved a challenge. Yet the walnuts seem to thrive, and grow with astonishing speed. We have six and seven meter trees that can't be more than five years old.

The old tree is painfully lacking in elegance. Hacked up by boys building a tree-house more than 30 years ago, the scars still show. Knobbed, arthritic arms stick out in all directions. More than a meter through at the stump now, the wood is highly valued for quality furniture. If you price it on the internet, the old tree sounds like a gold mine, BUT -- the near certainty that a saw would find nails embedded to the very heart also means the neighbour with a sawmill won't touch this tree. Still, if it can't make us wealthy, it shelters a playhouse, fittingly named by our grandchildren, "Eeyore's House." It also produces bushels of bullet-hard walnuts every year.

A bare field that hasn't seen a grazing cow for ages is fast becoming a grove of trees -- offspring -- most of them, from this gnarled old thing. A few other verieties struggle or thrive according to their nature, but the walnuts seem to have staked a claim and are making good on it.

Somehow, I'm not sorry the wood can't be sold. Scarred and twisted, there is something noble about the way the old tree still stands against the weather and spreads broad, protecting arms over the playhouse. Like a gradmother bending over the stove, not because she must but because she chooses, this weathered lady dishes up great servings of walnuts every year. If squirrels alone are thankful for the bounty on the ground beneath her, the more venturesome of our grandchildren will soon discover she has broad branches perfect for climbing. She's a twisted old thing and probably not flattered by my description. But somehow, she's a lady all the way through.

Spring's slow stirrings
Summer's shimmer of green
Reluctant drabness of fall

Winter, so stark
but once in a while
lace and diamonds -- the richest of all.

1 comment:

Peter Black said...

Thanks, Brian, for this delightful tribute to the grand old black walnut. Nostalgic, for my recent past, too, since we've just left the old manse that was our home for almost 14 years, and also left behind the black walnut and several of her children.
Great pictures and poetic lines!

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