✧ Winner of the 2021 Ned Stuckey-French Nonfiction Contest ✧
Selected by Anjali Enjeti
A Zuihitsu: Harvesting Black Walnuts
My friend says there’s too much pressure to be happy in the summertime. She doesn’t mind the cooler temps with fall’s arrival.
When I drive my younger son to high school, he selects the music. Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald. Taylor Swift, Lil Nas X. We ride under a fleece of gray clouds. Watty, a very bad dog, tries to wedge his twenty-two pounds onto the dashboard. He also eats Kleenex, chews disposable masks, and drinks water from the mason jar in the cup holder. We sing, count the lights, hope for green.
Long, emerald arms of pine bough cross the window where I write. Heavy with rain.
I pull my car into the driveway, cracking over black walnuts, each one popping underneath the tires. This driveway holds sound—the echoes of dribbles, three-pointers, imaginary games my older son played by himself. He invented NBA tournaments and played for both teams, alone in the driveway for hours, keeping the score in penciled columns on a stack of paper wedged into a crack in the back deck. When the team he was rooting for lost, he’d sulk. I don’t understand, I’d say. Weren’t you also playing for the winning team? I didn’t know the rules—his rules, his invention. You don’t get it Mom, I can’t control the outcome of the game. I missed the buzzer beater. That’s when I realized: he had a whole cranial-stadium inside him. Real stakes.
The overcast sky: a shawl I have waited for.
There is too much acid in our soil, and my want is to blame. At least, that’s what the arborist said. But I might’ve misunderstood. What I know is that the Japanese maple wasn’t supposed to thrive where it was transplanted. But for eleven fall seasons, bright burgundy has burst against the cedar shingles. What I didn’t know, when I asked my spouse to plant hydrangeas in the front yard, was that adding a flowering plant would alter things. Throw the equilibrium off. Now, the Japanese maple is dying, and I’m wondering if we can reverse the change in the soil content fast enough so that the maple will be happy again. The hard part is not knowing if I can do anything to please it.
I have 193,335 unread emails. I could garden, but then my emails might topple the 200K mark. It might be better to start over.
When it’s a black walnut year, the route from our car to the house is like a grenade zone. The nuts fall with force. I run, holding books over my head for protection. They fall with loud thuds, like hooves galloping.
The Parents Facebook Group of Said University is filled with posts: Where can I find a counselor for my daughter? A cake for my son? A good OB-GYN? A printer for this one whose printer just broke? The parents, hungry for more information: from the university, from the other parents, from their kids. I want to unsubscribe, but the fear of missing something when I’m missing my son is too great. One time, I learned one critical thing, which I now can’t recall. I can feel the rotor wash from their entries.
My beagle has jumped onto a pile of poems, fresh from the printer.
In the years when the walnut tree bears walnuts, I gather them into buckets to make a vat of walnut dye for my handmade paper. The rich, moist, earthen, deep brown soil is the most exquisite natural dye.
I text my spouse: Can we save the Japanese maple?????
When I research the black walnut tree, I learn it is considered a great garden hazard because it releases a toxic compound called juglone. The drip line of a black walnut tree is everything under its canopy, where the juglone is concentrated.
Everything I read about the drip line and the canopy reminds me of parenting. I have built a canopy for my boys. But what if I’ve added something to the soil, unaware?
I cannot get the hang of the zuihitsu on paper, but the conversation I just had with my spouse is a perfect example of one. He doesn’t say it, but I know he’s wondering if I will actually use the walnuts we are collecting this year.
The v-shaped geese flock flies overhead in the direction we are driving. Against the gray sky, the gaggle appears like arrows released from a quiver.
I learn that I can join the Black Walnut Society. They will help me garden around the black walnut tree, which they call dreaded. I doubt their intentions from the start.
When we moved into the house, our then-landlord warned us that the neighbors wanted the black walnut tree cut down. Instead, he built a deck around it, like a moat.
We moved into this house because the public school was next door to it. The boys can roll out of bed and you can throw them over the fence to go to school, my dad laughed.
The redbrick school had many problems. There was no air conditioner, and temperatures on the third floor topped one-hundred degrees in late August. Parents bought two box fans. The teacher said it was a nice reprieve, it helped. But the school removed the fans two days later from the classroom. Against policy.
From the moment I first dipped a sheet of my handmade paper into a vat of walnut dye, I was transfixed. When I pulled the sheet out, a rich, earthy brown glistened over the abaca fibers. I learned the technique from Mary Hark during a week in Tennessee at the Arrowmont School of Arts. My husband took woodworking: making sculptural furniture with no power-tools. Each night, I went to bed at 5:30, too tired to eat dinner. We were both worried. We thought my excessive sleeping meant I was falling into a depression. Instead, we soon learned, I was pregnant for the first time. It was exciting to be pregnant, but more exciting to know I wasn’t depressed. I was barely outside the drip line.
I learn from The Society how to tell when the nutmeat is ready to harvest: press a finger on the husk. If it leaves a depression, the mature nut is ready.
When my oldest was a first grader, his morning recess was permanently canceled. Those twenty minutes were needed for timed spelling tests on the computer. But Mom, my then six-year-old son said, I can’t type.
The more I learn about the black walnut, the more I admire it, the way it protects its fruit.
My younger son brought home a disciplinary note requiring my signature. Teagan has received detention and will miss recess tomorrow. Reason cited: Throwing a snowball. I asked him, Did you throw it at someone? Did you throw it at the building? No, Mom, Teddy and I were playing catch with the snowball.
Certain plants can tolerate the black walnut tree, certain plants cannot.
I called the school. The children violated the playground rules. The children are permitted to make a snowball, but not to throw it. They know these rules, clearly written in the student handbook. My son was reading Biscuit the Dog books, not the handbook.
Our tree has dropped well over a thousand nuts. I have never seen the nutmeat. I have never used the walnuts I collect for my paper vat. This will be the year, I tell myself. Apparently, the nutmeat is light in color and has a mild flavor. It will keep for two or more years in the freezer.
My son and his friend, each six years old, sat in detention during recess. If they talked, the teacher told them they’d miss tomorrow’s recess, too. The children’s playground was lined with a wall of snow, four feet high. The plows came at 3 a.m., and the incessant beeping woke me every morning. I wanted to throw a snowball at the principal’s window.
Unlike the English walnut, the black walnut is hard to harvest. The outer shell is too tough for hand-held nutcrackers. These nuts require a hammer, a vise, or blocks of wood.
Today, drops of water hang from the bottom of pine bough branches, suspended, outside my window. The elegant limbs, emerald and slightly swaying, look like arms, the tips like a finger, pointing.
Black walnuts can create heavy shade—something I admire about our tree.
The city closed the one-hundred-year-old school a few years after our sons left it. The quiet building sat dormant. Now, it’s a COVID testing center.
When I reach the end of our long driveway, I tap on the brakes. I’m still in the habit of leaving room under the net, stopping short of the house. I see my oldest son’s darkened basketball. The same color as the walnuts, the ball rests, abandoned, against a weathered stand. He left home last month for college, and the stillness of the ball under the net ushers a flood of missing.
I don’t linger. Even a slight breeze will bring down the ripe nuts, big as tennis balls. I unclip my seatbelt and run, both hands covering the top of my head, into the house on Glencoe Ave.
LAURA JOYCE-HUBBARD’s (@laurajoyhub) nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Sewanee Review, Chicago Tribune, The Rumpus, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts to attend a residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She won the 2020 Essay Prize in the William Faulkner Pirate’s Alley Writing Competition. She is a U.S. Air Force veteran, fiction editor for TriQuarterly, and a Northwestern University MFA candidate.