There’s a black walnut tree on the edge of our grove. It’s about 60 feet tall and I can barely wrap my arms around the trunk. The first time I noticed it, the trunk was about as thick as my wrist and the whole tree was about ten feet tall.
It had sprouted from a nut planted by a squirrel, a product of the trees my great-grandparents planted. It wasn’t in a very convenient spot, growing in the loose dirt right behind a shed used to store the threshing machine that belonged to my Great-Uncle Carl. He built the shed at the edge of the grove, because the threshing machine was so big and heavy there wasn’t room for it anywhere else.
The threshing machine had become outmoded decades before, so it was stuck in a corner of the grove. The shed’s roof was rotting away and I’d decided to burn the whole thing down, but upon inspection, I found the little tree.
So, instead if just throwing a match in the door, I used our loader to push the whole structure over and pile it at the far end of its footprint. The fire got hot enough to curl the leaves on one side of the tree, but it survived. I buried the cement and forgot about it for another twenty years or so. Brush and grass filled the hole left by the shed, and just a few years ago I noticed the tree again and how magnificent it had become.
It’s kind of a mystery why my great-grandparents planted black walnut trees in the first place. There are none in Norway, and they’re not really supposed to flourish here on the prairie. It’s too hot, too cold, too dry for them. Nevertheless, Great Grandpa lined both sides of the driveway with them, and they did flourish.
Of course, it was too hot, too cold, and too dry for Norwegians, too, as well as the Irish, Swedes, Danes, New England Yankees and any of the other ethnic groups that ended up here on the prairie. I can’t state this as a fact, but from what I’ve read even the Native Americans didn’t hang out here in the winter; they followed the game herds to a gentler place.
I look at that black walnut tree, growing in a place no one thought it could grow. It’s descended from a tree planted by people who really didn’t know what they were doing and in turn was planted accidently, by a squirrel. Finally, it was saved by the whim of a pig farmer tidying up his yard. It makes me think of, well, of America.
We’re kind of an accidental country. English aristocrats came to Virginia to find gold and there wasn’t any. Puritans came to New England in hopes of no longer being oppressed and instead became oppressors. The Dutch came to New York to get rich, the Irish and Norwegians came hoping to no longer starve, Somalis for the same reason. The list goes on and on. Sometimes the reasons change. In Minnesota, the Hmong and Vietnamese came because they supported the Americans during the Vietnam War. After it ended, they didn’t have much choice but to flee for their lives.
Should the trees never have been planted? Would it be a better place if it was all still prairie grass, with only the footprints of the buffalo herds marking the land? I’m sure there are more than a few people who’d say “Yes” to that. I’m not one of them. Human beings first left Africa about 200,000 years ago. It’s been a continual journey, in all ways, ever since. To say otherwise is to deny reality.
There’s an old Buddhist saying, “Embrace the suck.”
Okay, maybe the Buddhists phrase it differently. But what it means is, life is what we make of it. You can choose to be miserable or choose to deal with the bad parts and work for the good. There are no good old days to return to, there is no purer version of America behind us. We’re a bunch of mutts, the “wretched refuse of your teeming shores…” and we always have been.
You should see my tree. It’s a hell of a tree.
Copyright 2019 Brent Olson