I’ve lived in the same house in a small midwestern city for thirty years. We’ve made many changes in that time, but the one constant has been the black walnut tree in the far corner of our cramped back yard. When we moved in, it was competing for sunlight with a giant mulberry and several spindly box elders. With the zeal of young first-time homeowners, we sawed down the saplings and ripped off the Virginia creeper under which the house was sinking like a lost continent. 15 years later, the mulberry died. Since then, the walnut has reigned uncontested, growing taller and broader every year. It’s now at least 80 feet high, dwarfing the neighboring telephone pole. It’s the biggest presence in my day—the first thing my eyes light on when I wake up, or when I glance out during the daytime. I watch the weather evolve in its branches. It’s where everything happens in the yard: all movement and activity.
In spring, it’s the last tree around to leaf out, sporting tiny chartreuse blossoms and fistfuls of leaflets in late May. In fall, it bombards us with walnuts that thwack to earth like small missiles, and it keeps its leaves until all the nearby maples and locusts are bare. Squirrels shave their way through the husks to get at the nuts, spinning the lime-green orbs in their paws as they gnaw, leaving rotting messes of black litter that stains everything it touches.
When we first arrived, I was still under the illusion that I was in charge. I tried for many years to create an English cottage garden bursting with hollyhocks, foxgloves, roses, delphiniums, sweet William, lupines, peonies, and forget-me-nots. I’ve sunk several thousand dollars into plants and shrubs that never prospered: The tree tolerated a handful of them, but the majority it poisoned, either fast or slowly. The leaves, bark, nut hulls and roots of black walnuts secrete a substance called juglone that is toxic to many plants. If you cut a walnut down, its root-system continues posthumously pumping out juglone for years. The tomatoes were its most dramatic victims. After a couple of weeks of appearing to thrive, they began to wilt, and no amount of watering could revive them
It took me years to realize why my plants were failing and even longer to accept that the walnut set the ground rules everywhere, not just under its canopy. Nowhere in the back yard could I plant things it didn’t like. The list of things it did like was short and selective: mostly native, prairie species such as sumac, beebalm, coneflowers, trillium, and black-eyed Susan.
For years, I thought of the walnut as an adversary. But as I’ve grown wiser and accepted the status quo, I’ve come to appreciate its strength and generosity. Its branches now curve over the house protectively, extending their welcome shade. They also lean toward the two walnuts in nearby yards, as if wishing to touch them. There may well be some truth to this romantic impression of mine. Startling new research shows that trees communicate with and support each other through an underground labyrinth of fungal connections, a mycorrhizal network that scientists have nicknamed the “wood-wide web.” This network allows them to send food and water to neighbors in need and warn them of impending stress or danger.
I’ve resisted suggestions to cut the tree down. Walnuts are prized for their lumber because of their exceptionally long, straight trunks. Their wood has a dense grain but is easy to work with and highly durable. As European Americans moved West, black walnuts, like all the other trees, were hacked down to create farmland and build houses. They were enlisted in the service of Manifest Destiny, used by the settlers to make fences, barns, furniture, and gunstocks.
Our tree has a massive, arrow-straight trunk and deeply furrowed, grayish bark. It has shown no sign yet of frailty or disease, and I hope it will outlive us. It has endured blizzards, ice-storms, gales, droughts, beetle infestations, violent hail and 105-degree heat. It’s seen countless sunsets and full moons and fireflies. It’s been wafted with the sweet, lemony scent of mock-orange and with smoke from our Weber grill.
It shelters so many living things. The robin who sings there quietly at daybreak and dusk. The squirrels who snooze splayed out on its branches on sunny winter days. The flocks of resident goldfinches and house finches who flit in and out, exchanging their complicated, burry phrases. Visiting blue-gray gnatcatchers who browse the canopy in spring. The raccoons who sometimes climb it at night-time to gnaw on corncobs or melon rinds they’ve swiped from the compost bin. The woodpeckers and nuthatches who regularly probe and drill its thick, rough bark. The cicadas who grasp it, trilling with their raspy legs. The pair of red-winged blackbirds who’ve unaccountably settled in the yard instead of on the cattail marshes with their peers. The swallows who chitter and careen overhead. The bats flittering round it like shreds of burned paper on summer nights. The boisterous grackles who graze it on fall afternoons. And the travelers: the catbird, the house wren, the chipping sparrows, and this year a Magnolia warbler and briefly, gloriously, a ruby-crowned kinglet.
Thoreau came to believe that trees have souls. As our lives unfold in tandem, I’m starting to wonder if it recognizes me yet. Tree time is slow, much slower than ours. We buried our last cat at its base. For 18 years, he’d taken naps there, hidden in the ferns. It seemed like the only place. I like to think of our two longtime companions invisibly mingling, the one nestled in the other’s roots, the tree eventually absorbing the cat’s substance, turned to soil, and rising ever taller, ever straighter, the craggy elder and guardian of the garden.
Author Bio: Catherine Jagoe is a British-American poet, essayist, and translator. She holds a 2016 Pushcart Prize for nonfiction, and her 2016 poetry book Bloodroot won three awards. She also has three poetry chapbooks, and has translated two novels from Spanish. Her work has appeared in The Writer’s Almanac, Poetry Daily, American Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, and many other literary magazines. She has held writing fellowships recently at Jentel, Playa, and VCCA. Her website is www.catherinejagoe.com.