On my visit to the U.K. last spring, I arranged to meet with the novelist and philosopher Will Buckingham in a restaurant near the Birmingham train station on my way from Aberystwyth to London. I’m a long-time reader of his blog ThinkBuddha (and more recently of his personal blog) and a fan of his first novel, Cargo Fever. So knowing that he was a guy with wide-ranging interests and a gift for translating abstruse ideas into ordinary language, I figured he had to be pretty interesting to chat with. I wasn’t disappointed.
In this first half of our conversation, I got Will talking about the philosophy in the Moomin books of Tove Jannson; the ancient Chinese Daoist text Zhuangzi (actually, I’ve spared you most of that — Will and I share a great fondness for the work, but I realize most listeners won’t have read it); the pervasive sense of loss in the Western philosophical tradition; teaching and writing; Martin Heidegger; why existentialism is no longer popular; Emmanuel Levinas; and parallels between Indian and Greek philosophy.
Mamihlapinatapai (sometimes spelled mamihlapinatapei)
is a word from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego,
listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the
“most succinct word”, and … one of the hardest words
to translate. It refers to “a look shared by two people,
each wishing that the other will offer something
that they both desire but are unwilling to do.”
And as autumn begins to deepen in earnest, I love
late afternoons best— when the yellowing leaves
have not yet all fluttered down, exhausted moths
looking to cluster for warmth. I love the way
the light gilds branches so that they form
a sort of nave in a green cathedral, love
the way their long arms arc over the widest
stretch of the avenue. And sometimes, driving
from work or taking children home from school,
more than once I have been surprised to find
that the light has also touched a hidden lever,
a fiber of longing in my throat. I have
no words for it, just as I have no words
for the film of tears that sometimes comes
unbidden and just as quickly dissipates.
Is it a kind of joy mingled with such
wistfulness, a feeling of being taken up
and embraced before goodbye? Who
are you? I want to ask of no one in
particular, as I pass under the lit up leaves,
before the sky lowers and a little rain begins.
As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, I decided to shoot some pictures of the black walnut tree in question. It had rained off and on, but the sun came out while I was shooting, making everything glow and glisten. In processing, I tried switching to black-and-white and found I preferred that for almost all the photos, with the possible exception of the one above. Here’s a slideshow of the set, which requires Flash, meaning that if you’re on an iPhone or iPad, you won’t be able to watch it. However, this is best viewed on a large monitor — once it starts playing, click the four-arrows icon at bottom right to expand it to full-screen. (If you’re on dial-up, it’s probably easiest to browse the set, and if you’re reading this via email or in a feed reader, you’ll probably have to click through to view the slideshow.)
The photo with my hand in it shows what I believe is the scar from our long-ago Frisbee attack. Usually black walnuts that sustain damage to a terminal bud end up forking, but this one did not. A single bud became the new main stem.
Black walnut wood is prized by furniture makers, and the supply is relatively scarce because the trees grow slowly once they start to get big. As these photos and yesterday’s post suggest, however, they grow quite rapidly in their first few decades. My feeling is once they start bearing nuts, that takes so much out of them that they don’t have much energy left to channel into wood. Consider they remain leafless for roughly seven and half months of the year at our latitude, not leafing out until early June, and the very woody nuts are always plentiful — I don’t think pollination ever fails.
The yard of my parents’ house is dominated by black walnuts, which might not seem like a good thing given their legendary inhospitabilty toward certain other plants, which can’t tolerate the chemical juglone exuded by black walnut leaves, husks and roots. However, for birdwatchers like my mom, they’re ideal because they leaf out so late and lose their leaves so early. When migrating warblers move through the yard, she has no trouble spotting them.
As for the walnuts, they are a bit of an acquired taste and a lot of work to remove from the shells, requiring a sledgehammer and extensive use of a nutpick. The hulls — source of the ink my friend Alison is so fond of — are easy enough to remove, but you have to wear gloves. If you don’t, as we didn’t when we were kids, you tend to provoke comments like, “Hey Bonta! Did you’ns run out toilet paper?” Kids can be cruel. These days, we find it much easier just to buy a jar of pre-shelled black walnuts for a couple dollars from the local Amish whenever we need some, so the squirrels up here feed very well.
Gray squirrels are scatter hoarders, and it’s their burying of the walnuts all around the yards and meadow that’s responsible for most of the new trees — those few that get past the deer (or boys with Frisbees). In the book North American Tree Squirrels, mammalogist Michael J. Steele recounts some of the strategies gray squirrels use to keep other squirrels from discovering their walnuts, including digging a couple fake burial sites in a row before finally burying the walnut for real if other squirrels are watching. I also once watched a squirrel excavate a walnut that had been buried about a foot down, clean it all off, then dig another hole a yard away and re-bury it. I suspect it thought another squirrel had watched the initial bury.
The most amazing fact about this behavior to me is that the squirrels rely on memory alone to recover hundreds of nuts, even when they’re buried under an additional foot or more of snow and ice. Steele has calculated that a squirrel digging a black walnut out of the frozen ground on a bitter cold January day, then chiseling through the rock-hard shell, expends more energy than it gets back from eating the nut. Hence, I suppose, the frequent raids on the birdfeeder to make up the deficit.
Don’t forget to submit tree-related links to the Festival of the Trees monthly blog carnival (deadline: September 30). The next edition will be at europeantrees — and we are still looking for a host of the following (Nov. 1st) edition.
There’s a black walnut tree beside the driveway that my brothers and I tried to kill one spring evening when we were teenagers and it was just a seedling. Now it drops fat green planetary objects from 50 or even 70 feet up, another one landing on the old cracked tarmac every so often with a heavy thunk, like a worn-out clock that has forgotten how to toll. But the tree’s in the prime of youth; it is I, the one-time would-be assassin, who has turned decrepit. I have a fan in a little cage that I turn on my face in the heat of the summer, and for most of the other three seasons, my bony knees remain cold no matter how many layers I wrap them in. The falling walnuts remind me not of harvest-time and blessings as they should, but of all the projects I’ve abandoned, including love, reproduction, a career, the whole matter of being a useful citizen.
It should be noted that we have plenty of squirrels, so sometimes the walnuts don’t fall on their own; they are pushed. Maybe the squirrels are simply clumsy, and drop the nuts by accident. But I’ve watched them do it, and I have to say I think they relish the sound of a walnut connecting with its unmissable target the earth, like bored kids with a frisbee aiming for the terminal bud of a tree seedling at the edge of the yard, and shouting with triumph when a lucky throw shaves it bald.
A bit of fun with William Shakespeare and a couple of public-domain films from the Prelinger Archives. SoundCloud came through once again, with a small selection of Creative Commons-licensed English Renaissance music to choose from. The piece I used is by William Byrd, “Malt’s come down,” performed by Vicente Parrilla and company.