September 30, 2003

Trees: Walnut ~ The Perfect Wood

image copyright Fred First

I didn't know any better. It was winter and the leaves were off the trees. I could key them to species by the leaves back then, but I was a clueless flatlander when it came to knowing a tree by it's bark. My division chairman at the college said "cut what you want" from the tracts he owned where houses would soon go up. He thought surely I'd leave the cash trees: the walnuts. I burned them in the woodstove that second winter living in Virginia. Felt a little guilty, and a lot warm. I still burn walnut, but I never take it for granted that it is a valuable wood indeed.

Our hilly acres here have all been, at one time or another, in pasture. It's hard to believe, given the fact that on the slopes, you go up five feet for every five you 'walk'. We find remnants of the stacked-rail fences that once served to separate one steep bit of grazing space from another. Down in the valley, along the edges of the bottomland and the road, squirrels use to sit on chestnut rail fences and eat walnuts from up on the hillsides, burying some of them in protected spots near the bottom rail. And now, along these sheltered margins, gnarly walnuts have come up and in turn, served as living fence posts for stringing barbed wire; the chestnuts have finally after decades on the ground succumbed to decay.

The cold valley winters and rocky soil here don't make for tall straight boles free of knots. Our squirrel-planted walnuts unfortunately will not make us or our children rich sold as saw logs. But they make us rich in other ways. I must confess, I do not grieve to find that one has dropped a large, dead branch or succumbed to age and died. The wood is a woodburner's dream. Dense as ash and almost the energy equivalent of oak, it is relatively dry when green, dries fast and burns hot. But, as they say, one should enjoy the journey and not just the destination, and it is in the cutting as much as the burning that I find walnut a winter joy.

If you want to impress your city friends, learn to recognize walnut. On the stump, the smaller branches, when broken, have a 'chambered pith'... the softer center core is divided into little compartments and very distinctive. The wood, of course, is difficult to confuse with any other. The outer sapwood is very light, while the heart wood... much prized by furniture makers... varies from a deep choclaty brown to a pleasant muted purple-brown aubergine. The grain is clean and straight. The stove lengths free of knots (I hesitate to confess) I often split on down with the hand axe to make wonderful lengths of eggplant-colored kindling. A bonus of so much splitting is the wonderfully odd smell of cut walnut. Smell being a very idiosyncratic and subjective observation at best, I'll tell you that to me, walnut smells astringent and medicinal... blending the faint aroma of iodine, a hint of freshly opened Band-aid with an underlying foundation of varnish. Trust me. Walnut is the smell of cool weather itself.

And here in this first week of cool weather, on this first frosty morning of the season, a few sticks of walnut are sending back the warmth and light of summer through the glass door of the silent, steadfast woodstove. Later today, I'll gather a bucketfull of hull-less nuts from along the road and pretend I wear a squirrel's hat, and plant walnuts along the pasture by the creek. I'd like to think decades from now that my great-grandchildren will inherit both the walnut trees and the inclination to get to know them as I have.

Previous Walnut Tales and Images here and here.
Posted by fred1st at September 30, 2003 07:57 AM | TrackBack

Do you harvest the nuts? Do you get the brown stuff all over your hands that doesn't wash off till Easter? (Pica makes ink out of it.) As a kid, I lived in what had been a walnut grove till somebody subdivided it for homes, but a few trees were left. Gorgeous, smoky things, worth getting stained for. (Yes, even here in California!)

Posted by: Doc Rock at September 30, 2003 09:14 AM

Listen as you gather and plant. There's an urgency to the wind in the trees. Hurry, hurry... something wintery this way comes. The time of hearth and home and harvest once again... simmering soup and crackling wood, apple bobbing and pumpkin baking, thick socks and hats with flaps, and the oft-told Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Apple cider simmers on the stove. Groundnut stew bubbles in the dutch oven. There's always room for another place-setting... and time for a story or two.

Posted by: Anne at September 30, 2003 01:33 PM

I have three large hickory trees on my small 1.7 acres. The limbs of one overhang my deck where - I am not making this up - the squirrels dive bomb me when I sit out there. They're evil, I tell ya, evil.

Posted by: Trey at September 30, 2003 02:28 PM

Your last line...great-grandchildren...and the dreams we place in them. Even if we never meet them, somehow it's important to us, it gives us deep pleasure to imagine certain things about their lives, simply for the fact that they'll be part of our lineage. (It doesn't move us as deeply to imagine an arbitrary person in the year 2070 I don't think). Is this something programmed into us genetically? Or is it heavily societally influenced? How deep does this feeling go? Just curious on people's thoughts...

Posted by: Withheld at September 30, 2003 07:43 PM

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