Saturday, June 14, 2014

Paean to a Walnut Tree

In a North Carolina neighborhood, constituting one small portion of a corpulent suburban empire, a young walnut tree bows to the wind. The rain pelts its leaves, but those leaves hardly quiver. The rain is not the walnut’s king. The walnut kneels like a courtier only for the wind, and when the wind decamps, the walnut stands tall again, the master of its domain.

In its front-yard fiefdom, the walnut must wage war. At first the walnut unwittingly welcomes its enemy. When the walnut caterpillar moth lays its eggs, they appear small and harmless. In ten days, the eggs explode with hundreds of larvae that live to devour. Soon the writhing mass of young caterpillars disperses, attacking the food stores of the tree. The walnut struggles to survive until its powerful ally – the weather -- arrives. With one hard freeze, the long war ends.

The walnut also craves conquest. It aggressively ferrets out new territory, dispatching long roots to pilfer resources from its neighbors. The walnut fights without mercy, using chemical warfare to vanquish its enemies. Lively columbines and gentle lilacs succumb quickly to the poisonous exudate; the spice bush fights back, but in the end, the walnut stands victorious.

The walnut courts and conquers, but it also gives generously to its neighbors. Each year, the walnut doles out rich nuts to squirrels and raccoons. It offers shelter to nervous Carolina wrens and boastful bluebirds. Without recompense, the walnut encourages every passerby to revel in its shade. Without shame, the walnut tempts voyeurs to contemplate its trials and tribulations, its annual cycle of dieback and growth.

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra), photo by Alicia Lamborn available at