Black Walnut: A Sweet Blood History
From one seed of childhood memories, I recall a stormy night and seeing my grandfather ride his horse toward home through a thunderstorm. I watched through the leaves of a large tree. In each flash of lightning as he came closer, the world was also a bright display of daylight green grass and trees.
Even through the strong odor of rain, from the open window I smelled the powerful soul of the black walnut tree near the window. It had an odor that was unique, a medicinal scent of herb and something fragrant I couldn’t name.
I had an affinity for that tree, a love that eventually grew to contain other trees. By day, I liked to put my small fingers in the dark, furrowed bark and let them travel. I considered this particular tree my own in some way, its long leaves that held other leaves and shaped something like a fern, the green cluster of nuts together in young groups until ready to fall. It even had its own unique sound as the warm winds passed through its leaves.
But it was the odor of this tree that really distinguished it from others. It had a beautiful smell I believed. It was strong enough that broken layers of shells or even the leaves kept insects from entering the house.
This one tree grew outside the old, small unpainted home where my grandparents moved after the Great Depression. It was a land of great silences and the dappled light of many trees. I played in the movement of that light, and sometimes I tried to open the two layers of walnut shell, a child seeking mysteries with tools, a hammer or another utensil, but I usually only managed to stain my hands and clothing. That is, until my father stepped in to help. He was gifted enough to impeccably open the shells and remove the meat.
Memory is filled with presences made large, and we were part of a big Chickasaw family with large memories. Our people were strongly those of the land who once cared for grasses, gardens, and trees. We had long been keepers of the Southeastern forests, and nuts were a primary food, so the many nut trees received much attention and care.
In my child’s imagination, that particular Oklahoma black walnut tree may have been one of many nut trees growing in the area. It is possible that it permitted other trees to grow in its presence. In all the singular peculiarity of this species, it is a tree with roots stretching far and wide, holding the tree solid while they send out a toxin (juglans) that kills many other trees and brush. A black walnut is choosy about which certain plants and understory are permitted to thrive near or beneath its shadows.
In those young days I didn’t know about the ways of plants or their keen intelligence. Looking back now, it seems that we were mostly the keepers of stories, not forests. Our lives were created by stories. Many were told at night, without electricity, as we sat outside and listened to the older people talk. Even now, there are times I feel I grew up during the Great Depression, the closing of the banks, and the loss of our lands. I lived through numerous acts of federal corruption and local thefts. I survived living in Indian Territory before it was the state of Oklahoma and the famous thieves and gangs passed through. There they were safe from the law, and they sought refuge in the caves nearby. Many years later, some of my very young students, two cousins, each individually wrote about their family members saving Bonnie and Clyde from the law, so I wasn’t alone in this lived experience of story and our history and its effects on children.
Invariably, as we sat and listened, someone told about the time my grandfather bought a car from his brother. It turned out to be stolen. It was the only car he ever bought. After that he drove only two horses with a wagon to fill the large milk container with water from the community pump. The pump was for the Indians who lived without a source of water. My sister and I rode along and while he filled the milk cans outside, we went inside the general store for a soda or other treat.
But despite that experience of ours, my father told me the story that influenced me greatly. Before land thefts and losses, their own first home had been a large ranch. It was on our family’s original allotment land and my grandfather was the kind of man who’d part with no parcel of earth and never a healthy tree. But during the time of war, black walnut was the most valuable wood because it was in great demand for gunstock.
The family went to town one day, and I believe they stopped to visit relatives. Perhaps they stayed to eat. In those days, no one left another home hungry. They might even have spent the night. When they returned, their beautiful black walnut trees had been cut and taken away. It was a terrible loss, and I understood that the loss of the trees mattered not so much financially, but that their disappearance was a loss to the heart, and it was also one more theft from an Indian family who’d lost much already.
All this happened before I was born, when my father was young. But the pain over this loss was never remedied. Even after the last trace of the older generation was gone, the ghosts of the stolen trees have remained with me. They were the trees of my heart, too.
Some time later, the smaller home of my grandmother burned down. By then my grandfather was gone, so my grandmother moved to a small town to be near one of my aunts. Several years later, my father and I were on a journey of memory, collecting oral histories and visiting our family. I wanted to stop at my grandmother’s old home, even though it had burned. To our surprise, not far from the black shadow that had been their home, the black walnut tree was still there. It stood older, larger, and shaped a bit differently by the changed currents of air.
After that, I began research on our very long Chickasaw history, including our lives before the explorers and invaders arrived in 1541. Those first violent Europeans wrote about how amazed they were at our forests, how we cared for them, groomed them, and lived from their many offerings. Their botanists wrote the most, so the trees and plants were well documented. Nothing similar existed at the time in Europe. Numerous botanists arrived to take samples back to Europe. They had boxes large enough for trees and smaller boxes for medicinal and other important plants. Few of their samples survived in European conditions, even though greenhouses with controlled temperatures were built for them. I imagine the soil was long dead, missing nutrients and micronutrients necessary to feed and nurture trees or plants from any of the continents they visited.
Perhaps some intuition informed me that forests and plants beyond compare had lived in my blood centuries ago. Then I discovered that black walnut trees were even a larger part of our history. In a book called The Global Forest, Diana Beresford-Kroeger wrote about the large city of the Mississippians called Cahokia, people from which I come. While called a city in history and anthropology books, it was primarily more of a gathering place. What’s important is that the population of this place considered a city was larger than London or Paris at the same time in history, from 800-1200 C.E.
Southeastern tribal peoples were mound builders and earth-workers. Our ancestors built numerous effigy mounds, some in the shape of animals and other mysteries, some to accommodate the sky, the sun and moon and constellations. Numbers of these are still in existence, even if little known to many people. Most popular now is the “city” named Cahokia, which is a region of many mounds. A pyramid there is larger than any found in Egypt or the Yucatan. Of over a hundred mounds, one that’s most frequently visited is named “Monk’s Mound” because French Trappist monks lived there for a time.
For me, the most fascinating fact about this pyramid is that it was completely encircled by black walnut trees. The people who lived there knew these intelligent trees were able to repel certain animals, insects, and parasites. At the same time, the trees attracted others that were beneficial. With their strong scent, they were a valuable presence and may have permitted medicine plants, berries, and other foods to grow beneath them. Their magnificent underground roots spread out a long distance to hold the moist bottomland soil intact. These trees preferred earth near waterways like those where great rivers meet, land given to flooding and easily washed away. This green bottomland is the perfect home for black walnut trees. They held it strong, even during seismic activity, such as the Great Madrid earthquake of 1812 that reversed the direction of the Mississippi River.
The odor I loved of the black walnut tree is the language, maybe even the labor, of this tree. Each tree has its own intelligence. This one dwells among the higher minds.
Its intelligence isn’t only the root system, or how many parts of a tree might work together to keep it alive in a complex ecosystem. It draws to it the monarch butterflies that make their migration through this location to feed from this favored tree, the black walnut. So do over two hundred other species of butterfly and moths, including the rare Luna moth. The deer are attracted to its shade, and in these shadows, healing plants like swamp weed, milkweed and wild ginger grow.
Some of these mounds are mysteries. Classes were attended here, and so were performances of drama and music. Some areas were only for worship of our sky and our ancestral beings. Some mounds held the ancestors. One body was found with a tablet in her hand. On one side was a butterfly and on the other were a panther and snake. Constellations and something that appeared to be writing were also there. These were only part of the collected life known by the people, but nothing was known as well as the trees. The black walnut trees were groomed of insects by numerous but now extinct heath hens and passenger pigeons. Other birds protected the trees from those who might break into the sweet liquid inside the bark, once used as a sweetener or syrup for the people.
Because of this tree, the region remained free of unwanted insects, attracted food, and kept the unwanted wildlife at bay, while bringing close the animals that were desirable. The root system, in a riverine bottomland, kept the land intact, and held the world of mounds in place during seismic activity.
Perhaps it is history, but I believe it is truth, that trees are part of the sacred life. The fluid that passes through all things that have lived on our small and amazing planet continues to pass into other lives. It is a world that may be too great for us to take in with only a simple human mind.
Unknown to me, the first tree I remember was a long part of our history through time.
I still think of the black walnut tree I knew as a girl and wonder how many may once have existed in the rich forests of Oklahoma, earlier called Indian Territory, in the time before great deforestation. What I believed was a beautiful, intriguing scent was actually a toxic smell that said, ‘Keep away,’ to many other trees, to animals, and to insects that might otherwise have harmed it.
Trees are still my sacred world. They are beautiful people. I try to remember to acknowledge them, especially the grandmother and grandfather pine that have grown tall here where I live, old growth trees that have shaped themselves and rooted so perfectly that they’ve withstood great snows over the years, with branches perfectly spaced to allow air currents to move around them, healthy enough to withstand infestations, and to have remained standing even after the great flood of 2013 created devastation all around them.
As a child, I never knew about nitrogen-fixing plants or trees, or potassium, or the table of elements that is part of our world. I only knew the sound of the wind passing through leaves and carrying the breath of all of the life around us. As it turned out, there were stories older than the ones I heard sitting outside at night, listening to the family speak about older times.
Now I know that all trees are sacred. They are not speechless. It’s just that you have to listen with your heart, and at night you may see the stars through branches and know it is all one cosmos, the sky, the ground beneath, and the way sweet fluid moves through our lives.