A large, mature black-walnut tree stretches its limbs to embrace the sky.
In our backyard, this tree’s trunk is so substantial that, for the tree itself to be embraced, two people would need to reach out, press the sides of their faces and their unguarded hearts against the tree’s bark to clasp hands. Only then would another circle of awareness be able to touch the tree’s Being.
Some urban yard keepers consider the black walnut a high-maintenance tree. During good years, the walnut bears large seeds, with nut meats firmly ensconced in hard protective shells, guarded by yet another layer or husk of a pithy bright green.
All of this fruit is of a substantial diameter and mowing becomes impossible without its timely collection. In addition to black walnuts, every autumnal season, our yard fills with a layer of detritus from the tree’s fine, needle-like leaf stems or petioles (black walnuts have a composite leaf structure), as well as a traditional cascade of deciduous leaves.
One of the walnut tree’s functions, as a “community citizen” engaged in selfless service, is that of neighborhood fresh-food market. When there is a good year or season, this tree produces enough walnuts to help sustain, not only a thriving community of squirrels, but our own.
We collect and fill gigantic tubs with the unhulled walnuts, which may be sold to a local processing facility. This processing facility, in turn, sells the shelled black walnuts back to the community. There is not a great deal of money to be made in this endeavor, but the collection of the walnuts is part of honoring the tree’s natural labor and the more general circle-of-life.
The act of producing fruit is not an annual constant. We have lived through two years of severe drought with this tree, thinking there might be few walnuts during those years. Nonetheless, during the years of severest drought, we were surprised to observe the tree ramp up nut “production” to bring forth not one but two bumper crops.
For two consecutive years, the black walnut seemed to produce something out of nothing—fleshy moistness out of the earth’s brittle dryness, as if striving to reaffirm its own life as well as the lives of those around and seeming to draw from its own internal stores of water to give more than it received.
Sometimes, when our own lives are endangered, we push our children forth into the world to take our places—whether we sink our roots deeply into the soil to commit to serving in one location or roam the earth to find our place of service, while walking on just two legs.
During the drought years, as I observed the phenomenon of this tree’s abundant fruit-bearing with amazement, I could not help but be reminded of the European Jews who were recorded throwing their babies to the outstretched arms of other Jews fortunate enough to be leaving Europe on departing ships at the outset of World War II.
In reality, the walnut tree standing in our yard is not “ours.” We share a place in the world with this tree, and this black walnut shares itself with us and our outdoor neighbors, the squirrels.
The tree stands as a source of food, shade, playful respite and shelter. In our own ways, “we”—the squirrels and members of our household—each try to give back in support of the tree by assisting the walnut with its process of propagation.
Gathering and planting black walnuts in the soil, where they hope the seeds will winter-over and become late-winter or spring meals, the squirrels busy themselves with the act of putting food by, all autumn long. Sometimes these walnuts become breakfast, lunch or dinner; sometimes these walnuts are forgotten and, in remaining unclaimed, take root in the soil to become seedlings.
For our part in the process of propagation, whenever our household is able, we dig these seedlings, pot them and eventually drive to replant them in remote places on rural land. It might be stealth reforestation or guerilla forestry. It is part of a spiritual practice which assuages feelings of modern isolation or urban disconnectedness from the natural world.
Looking for sunlight amid an opening in an already full canopy of foliage outside of the city, we plant seedlings where they might thrive. It is a process of hike, search, dig, plant, water, then, retreat. We say farewells, “We wish you well. Grow tall, majestic, become who you were meant to become,” because, after all is said and done, that is what each of us was brought here to do—affirm one another’s lives in the context of Community.