For the past 25 years I have lived along side four remarkably prolific walnut trees. When my husband and I first moved here, we marveled at the generous shade provided during the hot days of summer, and watched as a surprising number of different species of birds used the branches as temporary landing zones before visiting the bird feeders hanging in front of our kitchen window.
We moved in just after the Fourth of July. Our first harvest season started in late October that year, and included a bumper crop of walnuts. Now, I am a city girl. I thought that walnuts came in plastic packages, either whole or in pieces. When my husband suggested that we pick up the egg-sized green fruit that lay on the ground beneath the trees, I thought he was well, – nuts. “How unsanitary”, I said to myself, “these have been laying on the ground!”
Anatomy of a Walnut
The walnut is an amazing seed. The green husk is as tough as leather, but gives way as the seed matures. When fully ripened, the husk breaks away revealing one of nature’s toughest shells. In many ways it is like a clam shell, only opening under extreme pressure and then, if done right, breaking into halves.
Within that shell lies the meat of the walnut. This is a nutritional gold mine containing 4% water, 15% protein, 65% fat, and 14% carbohydrates, as well as 7% dietary fiber. It is particularly rich in content of several dietary minerals, including manganese and B vitamins.
Observing the Bounty
Once I got over my city-girl queasiness, I eagerly raked up the husks as they fell from the trees. We collected a full 30-gallon barrel of walnuts our first year. I was so excited about this new-found homesteading activity that I almost missed out on the other gleaners who depended on this annual harvest to sustain them through the winter.
One morning I looked out the kitchen window to see a murder of crows collaborating on cracking the walnuts and flying off with the meat. On the periphery were several observant squirrels, who would scan the ground, quickly make their way to an errant seed, pick it up in their front paws and complete a quality check before going off to plant it for later dining.
Turns out there was a whole animal caste system for gathering, cracking, eating, and storing this essential nutrient. Once I recognized this, I paid much closer attention to how all these different constituencies interacted with one another.
Sharing the Bounty
Thus began the annual race between the birds, squirrels, and other creatures and me to collect what became an annual production of shucking, peeling, drying, and then creating presents out of these magnificent nuts. All of us seemed to enjoy the harvest, and there always seemed to be plenty to go around.
My husband and I harvested the walnuts for several years. As we aged, however, our passion for the work decreased, and after he died, I just didn’t have it in me to do it by myself. I still delighted in watching the crows and the squirrels manage their stock, and I even successfully muted my knee-jerk response of “Hey! Those are my walnuts!” when human passers-by would pick up those that lay on the ground.
The Harvest Now
It has been many years since I collected walnuts. The trees are now older, too, and this year has been particularly hard on them because of drought conditions. Still, they are generous in their productivity. The squirrels are busy selecting their storage places, and the crows have been gathering in anticipation of a feast. This is very reassuring.
I am finding inspiration in the cycle of the walnut trees. In some ways, they are vulnerable because they cannot flee environmental threats of drought and fire. They are stoic in their making do with what is available.
They fulfill their genetic promise of going from dormancy to full blossom to dropping their seeds and leaves. They do this without resisting or complaining. They give of themselves generously and predictably until they can no longer do so, and then they die.
My ears are not attuned to the song of the walnut tree, but I don’t imagine that there is ever a note of regret for not having been able to blossom or produce seed or drop their leaves. I imagine that contentment is more frequently experienced than envy. There may be a bit of pride, (when fully matured), as they show off their branches and shade in the summer months, as well as with the multitude of those green husks come autumn.
I recognize that these are all qualities that I am wanting to bring to my aging. I want to be more like a walnut tree.
A Note in Passing
This last week I learned about the death of someone I knew in college. The death was unexpected, which made it all the more shocking. What has been a blessing has been the synchronicity of connecting with people I knew long ago who came together to celebrate a reunion that turned into a memorial.
This was not the only announcement of a death I received this past week. The frequency of these announcements increases as we age, but the shock of learning about someone with whom I shared laughter, tears, intimacy, and experiences and who is no longer available to recall these things with me is always difficult. The emptiness experienced after the death of a loved one is often initially filled with grief. Gradually that grief is replaced with recalling time spent with that loved one. This may include regret and remorse, but ideally it transforms into acceptance.
There is a wonderful phrase from Proverbs used in the Jewish tradition when someone dies; “May their memory be a blessing.” I am using it more often these days, and appreciating the fullness of the wish, as I remember the many good deeds and love that these people have left as their legacy.