For the nearly 15 years that we’ve lived in our country home in the city, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the Walnut Tree. Three massive 100-year old walnuts line – dare I say grace – our driveway and one even hugs our home. They are hands-down the messiest trees on the planet. (Hmmm, I wonder if I secretly was attracted to them because we share a messy nature) Walnut trees shed debris in all seasons and every month. Like a mouser cat brings its owner a prized catch, our walnut trees leave us “presents” on a daily basis. On any given day, our driveway and front porch become a canvas covered in bark, branches, tree limbs, walnut strings, compound leaves on a hearty stem, pollen packets, walnuts, and sharp bits of walnuts discarded by our entire county’s squirrel population. Who knew our walnut trees were the Jackson Pollocks of tree artists.
The generous shade the trees offer is always welcome. Of course, you couldn’t safely sit under one without a helmet and protective gear. And alas, the walnut is the last tree to earn its leaves in the spring yet the first one to shed its leaves in the fall, making for a short shade season. I believe studies have claimed that homeowners with shade trees save significant amounts on utility bills. However, I’ve earned every one of those dollars saved by the loss of time dealing with tree trash. In August and September, the real challenge kicks in. There have been late summer days when I have filled three 5 gallon buckets with dropped walnuts. I guess I could qualify this chore as a squat workout.
And these trees do not bear the good eating walnuts, the English walnut, that you purchase in the store. They are, again like me, referred to as common. These nuts are much more bitter and offer a pithy, almost dry texture that leaves your mouth feeling like it just sucked on a dry green tea bag. (How many of you are going to try that I wonder!)
On a dozen occasions over the years, my husband or I have been awakened out of a dead sleep by a nearby gunshot, only to realize it was just the sound of a walnut dropping onto our roof. Dropping is too passive of a term; our walnuts hurl themselves at the sides of our home with the raw anger of an upset teenager.
The walnut smell is an unmistakable intrusion to the nostrils. And its stain! So deep and dark and permanent! The stain that comes in on our guests’ shoes when they enter our golden light ash floor. A poor floor choice that I can fortunately blame on the previous homeowner. Even the bottoms of my feet are stained a blackish green and have dents and scrapes from walks down the driveway to retrieve the morning paper or afternoon mail. Yes, a wiser person would simply slip on shoes when venturing down the drive.
In a recent year when Ohio actually had what classified as a hurricane, we lost seven large trees up in our grove. The three steady walnuts that stand just feet from our home seemed to have escaped damage. About two hours after the storm, I was walking across the driveway when I heard a groan followed by a cracking sound. I fled to the house only to witness the amputation of the nearest walnut tree’s largest limb. I thanked that tree for uttering a warning creak and I realized we are aging together, both of us emitting occasional noises from our joints.
Like the walnut, I’m a late bloomer. It has taken me a decade and a half to embrace these trees completely. I stand in awe of their massive and gnarly shapes that bow over our drive and greet visitors. Their leafless forms in winter look like something out of a Hitchcock film. Their solid trunks have been the interesting backdrop for senior pictures I have snapped of my children and nephews. I am grateful they do not have thorns upon thorns like the multitude of angry black locusts that also seek our property. And this year, I’m doing something with the walnut fruit besides dumping them over our hillside. I am pickling the nuts for a future flavorful cheese board offering and making an Italian liqueur called nocino.
And so I now gaze up at the trees and thank them for their daily gifts. I’m trying to keep my critical comments to a whisper so the trees don’t retaliate when I lapse into ingratitude. Instead, I’ll launch all-out war against the other living creature that drives me totally nuts – the squirrel!