The Splendor of Black Walnut Trees
Standing under a black walnut tree, looking up, even the smaller trees seem so tall. The gray trunks are incredibly straight, perhaps for this reason they appear so tall and impressive, even awe inspiring. A field guide describes the bark as being brown to black, they are more gray to black, really only appear brown in the spring. The bark is shallowly grooved, little channels winding down and up, never following a clear path. I imagined the bark as terrain, a landscape, land that had perhaps once been covered with huge glaciers, then coursing rivers, water streaming from the melt continued to shape the crevasses. The scaly ridges though weren’t nice rounded bluffs and hills that would dominate land plowed by a glacier rather the flat, rocky mesas of the American Southwest, formed by weathering of mighty rivers and wind. I imagined rain water splashing down the trunk, filling the trenches with water as it flowed down to the base of the tree. What a curious sight that would be. However, it is a vertical landscape not horizontal, rain rarely falls straight down but usually at an angle, making such phenomenon an impossibility, a fantastic imagining. The bark becomes uniformly wet, furrows and ridges alike, void of rushing water. Rain soaks into the bark of the tree like a sponge. A wet tree appears very dark in color, flashing a brilliant contrast to a cloudy day. Placing clean, dry hands on the trunk of the tree, it feels cold and moist. Pulling the hand away, it is covered in moisture and tiny pieces of bark.
The trees are dry now; touching them leaves no moisture or bark residue on my hand as I draw it across the trunk. I wrap my arms around it, embracing the tree to feel it, sense its being. It felt like energy transferred from the tree’s pulse into me. As with all trees there was that incredible strength, which gave encouragement. The black walnut tree had a different sort of energy traveling through it then other species and families of trees. It is something that can’t quite be described and is only noticed after a couple decades of embracing trees, with an open mind, spirit, and heart attuned to the natural world.
When I think of a black walnut tree, the first thing to come to mind, indeed the most impressionable quality of this species, is the smell of the fruit. It is a lingering smell persisting in the senses for years after smelling it. Tannic, dark, rich, sharp are the best words to describe the pungent smell of black walnuts, if you haven’t had the pleasure of smelling them, there is no way you could grasp this scent that is solely the smell of black walnuts alone, nothing else smells as it does. The scent penetrates the senses as a sensation felt deep in one’s sinuses rather then just a smell taken in by the nose.
For me, that unmistakable scent automatically calls up memories of childhood. There were a few black walnut trees growing on my childhood farm, two growing in different locations in the yard, both of which had a fort underneath around its spreading branches. They were smaller trees, we could reach up, grab ahold of a branch, pull it down toward us to pull of the green fruit. That smell filling my nostrils and head, seeping deep within me to my very soul where I still carry it and even now comes flooding back into my senses unaltered or lessened. Unlike many overpowering smells, this one wasn’t (and isn’t) bad, though I wouldn’t want it as perfume or air freshener, it is a delightful, good smell. My tiny hands would stretch to their limit, trying to grab the aromatic fruit, hanging in a cluster of about three. When reaching until pain shot through and down my arm didn’t work, I would jump, pushing myself off the ground as hard as I could. The brief seconds in the air, I’d bat at the round fruit with my tiny hand, sometimes just barely touching it. The memory becomes a little faded; I can’t recall actually successfully pulling the fruit of the tree, plucking it from place. At best, I knocked some down. I certainly picked the fruit up off the ground many times. The clearest memory is holding that ball containing edible nutmeat within it in my tiny hand, bigger than my palm. Lifting the green, nearly round, solid ball of fruit to my nose, it wasn’t enough to smell it as I walked by when the fruit was disturbed, or as I stood beneath those clusters, or bent over to pick them up from the ground or even when I held them in my hand, no, I had to get closer yet, not because the smell wasn’t strong enough, but that I wanted to be closer to it, to really inhale it, imprinting it on to the very fiber of my being, making the walnut a part of who I am. Of course, I wasn’t conscious that was what I was doing, being a very small child taking in the natural realm with awe, delighted in even seemingly small things as black walnut fruits.
The wonderful scent wasn’t all that drew my attention and fascination though. Elated with the texture of the walnut husk, with its tactile appeal, like fine sandpaper, I rolled it around in my hand and liked to just touch it. I carted armloads of walnut fruits around the farm, playing with them. To mom’s dismay, I had a large collection in my bedroom too; the fruit husks contain compounds that leave stains, the reason for her dismay. She didn’t want them staining my clothes, carpet, window sill – the location of my stash – and other such items. Dark brown stains on my hands did not alarm me but rather fueled my interest in the black walnut, getting dirty I think, was my childhood aim. What child wouldn’t be delighted by the curious ability of a black walnut to temporarily stain fingers? There is such pleasure in it. The fresh green fruits weren’t they only ones picked up and enjoyed however, I wasn’t above picking up the blackened, deteriorating husks. Deep grooves of the shell were another joy to my sense of touch; these were also rolled about in my hand. Broken empty shells were my favorite, jagged edges were thrilling, differing shapes of these shards left by squirrels were and still are enchanting. A beautiful heart is found inside shells that are perfectly halved, a very pleasing quality to a young girl. Fruit aside, the tree itself is spectacular to a small child, as she admires its straightness. The only draw back to black walnut trees, I was unable to climb them and sit in their sprawling branches.
Pretty green, compound leaves, alternately attached, with teeth along the edge gives the black walnut tree a character of its own in addition to its memorable smelling fruit. Standing at the base of the tree, staring up getting lost in the branches, now nearly leafless, I wrap my arms around the tree one more time, keeping my childhood heart open and active. Thrilled that Grandpa’s farm has so many walnut trees. My feet crunch and slip on the shards of walnut shells emptied of their delicious meat by industrious squirrels. If shoeless, my feet most likely would have been pierced by the rough edges, a painful, yet worthwhile consequence for standing under such a magnificent tree.