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Levin: The Walnut Tree

Twenty-eight years ago, when my wife was pregnant with our first son, she decided that we should collect walnuts from a large, sweeping black walnut tree that grew on a nearby dairy farm. Linny had eyed the tree for several years, or, perhaps more aptly coveted it. Pregnancy somehow galvanized her into action and I became her willing accomplice.

We were given permission to gather nuts, which littered the yard and the driveway. We collected a bushel basket of the most gorgeous looking walnuts I’d ever seen, each one almost as big as baseball, with fragrant, yellow-green husks, like so many odd shaped apples.

A walnut is not easy to open. It takes a knife to cut away the husk - once used to by Native Americans to poison fish - and a hammer to crack the shell. The meat is delicious, but we wanted to germinate the nuts, to see if we could grow a black walnut tree as a gift to our unborn son.

According to our friend Ginny Barlow, a maven on such matters, a small population of wild black walnuts grows in Vermont mostly in Chittenden County. I knew the tree from my boyhood on Long Island - we chucked the big nuts at each other - and from my college years in Indiana, where a profitable black market in stolen walnut wood sent unscrupulous woodsmen into woodlots.

Of the approximate one hundred nuts we gathered, seven germinated. After our son was born, Linny took to calling the sprouts Casey’s trees. She planted them in the yard and fussed over them. Four survived the first year. Deer ate one the second year; another died of unknown causes.

When we moved to Thetford, seven years later, we took the trees with us. They were barely two-feet tall - quintessential slow-growing hardwoods - with roots longer and stouter than the trunks. During the three years we lived on Houghton Hill, one of the saplings died. So by the time we moved to Thetford Center in 1997, we had two boys and one tree. It was now eight-feet tall, and we had to hire a landscaper to transplant it.

When Linny died in 2000, the tree was just coming into its own.

Today, Casey lives in Colorado and the tree, his tree, that his mother so loving tended, is forty-feet tall, nearly a foot-thick at breast height, and lords it over the compost pile. This year, for the first time, the tree produced seven yellow-green nuts – which I sent to Colorado – wrapped in memories.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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