Elegy for a Walnut Tree...in which Uncle Duke mourns a friend



One can argue the relative benefits and flaws of Facebook. And it is certainly rife with human abuses and subject to all the American shortcomings of greed and meanness and dishonesty. And I would not argue any of them.

But personally, it is also true that I have been allowed to become intimate in a sense with a very large number of people. We have become “friends”. And though we may not be for real Friends, it does not mean that we could not be. It is more than likely we would be, if we knew each other.

Along those lines, I am often touched profoundly by the honesty displayed in so many posts. And I find that honesty is most plentiful and edifying around the subject of loss. People we know, Friends and ‘friends’ often discuss openly things which were once part of their lives and are no longer. There are parents who have gone beyond. Siblings taken from them. Often many years before. There were mates and partners pulled from their grasp, friends who passed, and even children ripped from their arms. The anniversaries come up, the birthdays, and we read of that loss which remains as deep and painful as ever. They express a shared pain there with which most of us can identify.

In this way, strangers lay themselves open to each other. Their raw and vulnerable sides convey genuine love towards missing parts of themselves, which they fully understand will never be restored. They bare themselves as saddened, probably perpetual mourners to a World that is not always charitable to those who expose themselves.

And it often goes beyond family. There are houses that burned, homes and hometowns that had to be left behind. For multiple and generally untold reasons. There are friends we grew up with, teachers we knew and loved, as well as recognized but nameless faces who helped raise us. All no longer in our lives. Once important but now voids and empty spaces.

In a broad-based and seemingly impersonal social network, one often finds these genuine expressions of bereavement, articulated with such honesty. They cast them out fearlessly into a sea so often filled with discord and ugly derision that it makes me want to somehow transport myself to wherever they are, whether I know them or not, and silently sit with them and hold their hands.

The same is true for pets. I admit that I have been in the past dismissive of cat videos and puppy links. And I remain a cynical and sarcastic grinch in that regard. But when I see a photo of an animal which someone has lost, when I realize that this person is describing, for all the world to read, the traits of a cherished friend, a respected and esteemed companion, generally of many years, I am deeply touched. This is genuine loss. As real as any other. They display their vulnerability and surrender a part of their souls, on a public stage. And I am most impressed.

I have personally never gone there publicly, but I do confess today that I mourn a tree. Yesterday, it was a 100-year-old walnut. And today it is not. Today it is largely sawdust and a number of sections of immense trunk on a flatbed truck somewhere. Yesterday it was here, out the window, shading me, adding beauty to my life. And today there is an immense hole in the sky.

In my previous lifetime as a Project Engineer, I was tasked with making roads through the woods where there were none before. I was somewhat renowned as the guy who created circuitous, serpentine roads to avoid a tree of any appreciable girth. If I did have to take down a mature tree, if there was no way around it, I felt immensely bad--like I was breaking into a museum and defacing Art. Robbing Civilization of its heritage. It was a dreadful conundrum. Though I must say that my penchant for saving trees made for some very interesting roads. Other people said so too.

So yes, I have bonded with trees in the past. But I don’t believe I have ever Loved a tree before. Nor had Diana. Not to that extent. She seldom walked out the back door without mentioning to whoever was around: “You know I love this tree, don’t you? I really do.”

Some would perhaps not understand this, and I confess it caught me by surprise. As I mentioned, I have always recognized trees as awesome organisms. There have been specimens that I have respected. I have been impressed by some and awed by others. Even intimidated and frightened by some. But I never had a relationship like this one. And on reflection, I did indeed Love this tree.

It was a mature tree when I moved into this house 48 years ago. So I have known this tree longer than I have known Diana. It had witnessed all of my more embarrassing first attempts at old-home restoration. As well as some very awkward and ill-advised courtships. It had a direct view into my bedroom window for most of my adult life. But it had remained politely silent regarding all of that. Though we would sometimes share a chuckle.

And if I were to eulogize it further, I would commence that it was a thing of beauty. It was a beautiful, elegant, well-proportioned, muscular tree. It had some blemishes, some imperfections, some wounds from the past. But it had recognized the invader and figured out how to heal itself effectively. It responded to its own infections and continued to do what it did—to hold its ground, leaf out, produce bushel basketsful of little walnuts—replicants of itself—then drop its leaves and go back into its dormant self. It knew exactly what to do. Year in and year out.

I loved it most as the seasons changed. Particularly in its winter state, I could see clearly its bare limbs, its structure. I admired the weight distribution, the balance, the symmetry and the asymmetry. As a free-standing structure, it was a marvel. I looked at its massive base and imagined its root system reaching out, its little tendrils clinging to the earth to keep all that mass and all that volume upright and in one place, despite all the changing conditions and wind loads. Millions of years of evolution at work. A Masterpiece of engineering.

And oh, the birds that passed through it and made their homes there. Mockingbirds, catbirds, finches of all persuasions. Blackbirds, cardinals and sparrows by the thousands. Nut hatches, titmice, and woodpecker. Dozens upon dozens of robins and all manners of songbirds migrating through. Hawks and owls too. Even an eagle once.

And while the squirrels and I have had our differences over the years, I did indeed love to watch them chase each other around that grand trunk. And though the walnuts were probably the main attraction, this was a tree made for squirrels to scramble in. A giant, woody jungle gym.

It of course goes without saying that it provided our home with an immense amount of shade over the years. We were gifted. Diana often said we were graced by its shade. The deck and the backyard were more tolerable places in the summer on account of its immense and charitable canopy. And I swear the oxygen it produced was fresher and sweeter than that produced by other trees. Perhaps I over-state a point here, but you couldn’t convince me of that today.

So it seriously pained me to see it treated with such indignity. As stately and dignified as it was, I felt it should have been afforded a more decorous conclusion. Its beautiful and valued grain deserved better than the loud and abrasive grinders which ignobly turned years of rings and incremental organic growth into indistinguishable chips and sawdust. Its elegant and majestic self warranted better than the violent and whining chainsaws that methodically ripped it into smaller pieces that meager men could handle. I do understand how the world works, but that don’t make it tolerable.

As they lassoed it and threw ropes about it in preparation for its dismemberment, I had a wonderful fantasy of it doing the King Kong thing. Awakened now and angry, it would stand to its full height. And with its immense strength, men would be pulled off the ground where they would dangle from the end of their puny ropes. That righteous walnut tree would then cease its years of silence and roar defiantly, detaching itself from its earthly roots and go stomping off to the east. Its bad-ass, hulking self would trample garages and kick down fences, dragging telephone poles and power lines as it went. Sparks would be flying from its midsection as it reached Missouri Ave. where it would protectively, gingerly, step over our historic Lafayette Park fence and continue on into the park. Once there it would choose a prominent spot, settle down and re-root itself. There it would stand, tall and proud, for generations to come. The Lafayette Park Conservancy would memorialize it in perpetuity with a bronze plaque.

“Here Grows One Beautiful, Bad-to-the Bone Walnut Tree,” the plaque would say. “Take a Walnut Home and Plant It.”

And people would be so awed and impressed that they’d do it. And 100 years from now, others would look out their windows and see a tree they could fall in love with. That’s the way the story should have ended.