Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Walnut Tree

This is a story I wrote in November 2003, which started out to be about the black walnut tree in this picture, but ended up being about my father-in-law who planted it.

The Tree
There are many trees that have been important in my life. The first to come to mind is the sassafras tree that grew next to the fence surrounding the acre of land where I was raised about seven miles outside of a small town in Michigan. That sassafras tree turned my world to yellow, gold, orange and red every autumn. I cried when lightning tore one of its limbs off and left it hanging like a broken arm. I never learned to climb that tree. I don’t recall if the lowest limbs were too high to reach, or the trunk too smooth to grasp, I just know of all the trees I climbed as a child, that wasn’t one of them. The choke cherry tree that grew right on the edge of our property line, back by the garden was my climbing tree. I climbed higher every year as my arms and legs grew longer and my fear grew less. Yes, that was my climbing tree! And the berries were just the right size for a pea shooter when they were green. Oh, how they stung when they hit. They were the perfect ammunition against my older sisters and brother who could run faster and hit harder. But when they ripened to a deep purple we set aside our "war" and worked together as we laid an old sheet under the tree and shook each limb as hard as we could. Because we knew Momma made the best choke cherry jelly from those little purple berries, and that jelly would fill our sandwiches and cover our toast all winter long, along with the elderberry jam from the bushes near the sassafras tree. Then there was the tree where my older sister taught me to hang from my toes. I think it was an oak tree. That was the same tree that provided shade for my daddy when he was working on one car or another. You’ve heard the term "shade tree mechanic," well, daddy truly was a shade tree mechanic, even though his real job was working for Sears and Roebuck. Then there were the two pine trees that hid our outhouse from view long after everyone else we knew had indoor plumbing, and there was the scrawny peach tree on our west property line that never did grow any peaches.
At school there were trees that lined most of the play yard of the one room country school we attended. That’s where the seventh and eighth grade boys put my brother during recess one time when he was about nine. Thus, his nickname "Squirrel" which he never did live down. They left him there when the bell rang and the teacher had to get him down. She never did find out who put him there. There was the big apple orchard just across the road and to the east from our house where we hunted mushrooms, and I caught poison ivy. The trees were old and didn’t produce very well, and the worms got about as many of those apples as we did. They weren’t good enough to sell at the market, so the owner let us have what we could eat. But my favorite apple tree was in the Sherman brothers’ field. It had large red apples with meat so white that the red skin dyed the meat pink in spots, and they were the sweetest of all the apples I remember. They were a variety of McIntosh apples I’m sure and I still favor them today. The Golden Delicious apple tree in my Aunt Ruey’s back yard was another favorite, both for the apples and for climbing. I’ve never tasted another Golden Delicious that had such a wonderful flavor, and Aunt Ruey made the best pies. That tree was also home to a wonderful rope swing that provided many hours of entertainment in the summers of my younger years. But the weeping willow tree in her neighbor’s yard, with its fronds allowed to grow to the ground was the most perfect place of all, the summer I was about eight. We held our "secret club" meetings there that summer. And that tree heard childhood secrets that we couldn’t share with adults.
As a young wife and mother my favorite tree was the crepe myrtle outside the dining room window of the small house in the country in the San Joaquin Valley in Northern California where we lived. It was the first crepe myrtle I’d seen up close and I was enthralled with every inch of it, from the curves of its trunk and the peeling bark to the intricate patterns of its smaller branches entwining, and covered with bright pink flowers. Our next door neighbor here has one and I’m still beguiled by it.
But the tree that means more to me today than any other stands in our own back yard. It started as one of a half dozen black walnuts picked up along a county road by my father-in-law. It is a county road that now serves as a frontage road for an Interstate highway. Its ancestors still stand, not quite as majestically as they probably did back then, but nonetheless, they remain. Tall dark sentinels against the blue sky, they line the old road. Aged and nearly barren, they look as though the hum of the traffic, and the smell of the exhaust of the thousands of cars that pass by each day has taken their toll. But our tree bears little resemblance to its ancestors. It had a beginning that one wouldn’t expect to be particularly productive. It was back in 1955 or 1956, no one seems to remember exactly which year, dad unceremoniously pushed a broom handle into the dirt to make holes and then dropped a walnut into each of them. Broom handles were stouter then than they are now, but even still a walnut that fit into a hole the size of a broom handle wouldn’t be expected to produce much of a tree, if they even grew. But grow they did, and dad pulled out all but the strongest one allowing that one to grow strong and tall. It is now some forty-eight years later, and that black walnut tree still stands guard over our back yard. It produces nuts with so little meat that no self respecting squirrel would waste the time to crack them, but it provides wonderful shade for our screened porch from the hot afternoon sun as it sets in the west. Over the years it has grown to a size unmatched by any of its ancestors. At chest height, its girth is an astounding 167-1/2 inches around. It’s height, unmeasured, towers close to if not more than 100 feet. Its limbs ever reaching for the skies have to be topped and its branches thinned every couple of years.
Each time I look at it, I’m amazed not only by its size, but by the differences and likeness to the man who planted it. He’s a man, not very large in stature, but with a heart that would seem more at home in a barrel chested longshoreman. He stands barely 5'8", with a hump at the shoulders that makes him appear shorter. I suppose most would describe his build as wiry, certainly of no comparison to the tree. The youngest of nine children, he was raised on a dairy farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He was the first bus driver for their one room country school while he was still a student himself. And like today’s mailman, neither rain, sleet, nor snow kept him from his appointed rounds. He served in the United States Army, migrated to California as a young man, and raised his children to be upstanding citizens. Yes, he comes from stock as tough as the wood in that black walnut tree, and in my eyes he stands just as tall! As sure as we can count on that tree to provide shade for our yard, so too, can we count on dad. He built the house I live in and much of what is in it with his own hands, he’s a genius with mechanical things, and he can figure out a solution to most any problem handed him. I love that huge black walnut tree, almost as much as I love the man who planted it.


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