The Black Walnut

Posted by Deborah on February 18, 2012

When we first took possession of this place it was terribly overgrown.  Large, leafy, generic flora crawled ploddingly over the land.  Normal garden shrubs had grown to enormous proportions.  There was a Viburnum davidii that covered an area the size of four pickup trucks side by side.  A mystery plant, identified by someone as a “Mexican wedding bush”, twiggy, with very small leaves,  created a barricade fifteen feet wide and ten feet tall and ten feet deep between the parking area and the upper field at the edge of the woods.  It took me a while to identify the sculptured tree-like shrubs that grew out of old fallen trees as mature, or rather, ancient ivy.  The septic tank and its concrete cover lay yards deep beneath a web of vicious dried blood colored blackberry canes the thickness of a cat’s foreleg.  Buddleia, or benignly named Butterfly Bush, the sale of which is now outlawed in this state, congregates in dense self protective groups all over the property.  It has thrived so well, that when in flower the heads are as long as my forearm and droop heavily like laden Chinese paintbrushes dipped in white and rich violet.   English laurel has also laid claim in large colonies, starving the earth wherever its long tentacle roots penetrates and its evergreen density blocks the sunlight.  Some of the trunks inside the laurel “hedges” were a foot and more in diameter and the tops reached thirty feet.  We had an excavator remove 108 cubic yards (that’s four 27 cu. yd. dumpsters) of the stuff from in front of our house revealing a section of bay and ocean view we had not known we had. And that is just a drop in the backhoe bucket.

There are more examples of rampant vegetative domination we’ve discovered here with which we will obviously have to contend in the coming years.  The holly and the ivy are probably our most stout adversaries but as we battle these, and other humanly introduced invaders, there are a few foreigners we want to save. 

There are stunningly beautiful, old and gnarled rhododendrons in danger of being absorbed in some horror-film manner by bamboo and cotoneaster, sweet rambling roses hopelessly entangled with blackberry vines, a statuesque cherry tree, crowded out by volunteer hollies infested with ivy.  As we clear areas we discover more isolated and struggling beauties as well as the contour of the land and the vistas that open. 

One of the first captives we liberated was the hulking and mysterious black walnut that is rooted like a sentinel at the base of a steep conifer encamped bank on the pathway to the creek.  We see its striking form from the south windows of the house.  Its canopy spans forty or fifty feet and its height is almost equal to that. In winter it is a bleached skeleton, stark and eerie against the dark backdrop of the woods.  In summer it is a lush green bower, branches waving above our little pond, inviting a rest in the shade.  In fall it ignites in brilliant yellow leafery.    It was hard to miss, even through the densely interwoven screen of shrubs, grasses, vines and struggling trees that lay between it and the view across the lower field from the house.  The tree is shaped like a torso with arms outstretched to the sky as if to receive some great descending bundle.  Because it backs up to a sunless north facing hill, it is almost two dimensional, spreading widely, but not deeply.  Under our first gaze in late summer it blended into the background, was just another very leafy, oversized presence on the property but with eye-squinting puzzlement it became clear that it looked this way because it had a thirty or forty foot alder tree horizontally balanced across its center, bisecting it, the alder’s dead branches pointing out and downward appearing to belong to the walnut.  It was a tangled, precarious mess of gigantic proportion which had to be dealt with.  This Amazonian scale teeter-totter was poised above where we planned to run our household water pipes to and from the creek.  Heavy sigh.  What to do?

A day came at the end of January 2010 when Carl felt able to tackle this seriously dangerous task of removing the alder from the walnut.  It had struck us while pondering the problem that it might be possible to lighten one end by cutting the branches that were within reach, thus allowing the heavier trunk end to swing down to ground level.   Without a better plan, this is how Carl proceeded.

Donning a hard hat seemed like wielding a papier mache shield in battle. Carl is careful though not easily intimidated. 

At that time we had a small, underpowered chainsaw that took a lot of endurance to use.  Carl cautiously reached from beneath the walnut trunk so it could guard him from unexpected falling branches.  After cutting his way through what he could reach, the top of the alder getting lighter and lighter, he was rewarded with a creaking shift in weight and the alder tree tipped in slow motion, its butt end hitting the ground with a heavy thud on the opposite side of the black walnut.

The remaining trunk was still enormous and dangerously placed, but the theory had worked so Carl cut the end that was now touching the ground. Low and behold, after another big groundshaking drop of timber, the upper segment lifted away from the saw cut, swayed up and slipped down the other side to an almost upright position against what one can only  imagine to be a relieved walnut tree.

By this time, Carl had had enough excitement and tension to last a while and so the comparatively small remainder would wait for another day. 

Since then the place has changed a lot.  The dumps have been removed (another story yet to come), areas have been cleared and mowed, ivy has been girdled on many trees and in dying is leaving massive brown weavings dangling from the tallest trees. In the landscape they are unsightly curiosities, but they make me smile whenever I glance out the windows and see that evidence of our labors and commitment to this place.