In a nutshell

An empty half-walnut shell lay
upturned on the verandah.
The wren fluttered down
& poked at it with his bill,
hopping all around it
in his big clown feet.

The black walnut half
had two large openings
like holes in a round kayak.
The wren probed one
& then the other, leaving nothing
to chance.

It was time for tea on the verandah,
but nobody came.
The wren flew off.
The walnut shell rocked a few times
& was still, riding high
without ballast
through the long afternoon.


Black walnut (Juglans nigra) produces much harder nuts than the familiar white or English walnut. Its nutmeat is also much tangier – an acquired taste.

The wren here is the Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus). The poem came out of direct observation, but was also influenced by the poem “The Hollow Walnut,” by the great Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral (translated by Maria Giachetti in Gabriela Mistral: A Reader, White Pine Press, 1993).

8 Replies to “In a nutshell”

  1. I love the wren “hopping all around it/in his big clown feet… leaving nothing to chance. Then, “It was time for tea” and things are really getting domestic and comfortable, not that they weren’t already. “Ballast” hurts like a rock thrown at me from nowhere. I think of drowning. Third read I’m O.K. with it. Still smarts, though. Fourth read better yet, the veranda is melting to become sea.
    Hey, I didn’t know Pennsylvanians had verandas. I would first have guessed porch, then stoop. You just liked veranda better, it worked better and it had some Catalonian blood in it.

  2. PS I really like saying “empty half-walnut shell” for the way it hangs, at least for me at, the hyphen (nicely breaking “half-walnut” in half) and then tumbles on.
    I also modulate pitch as I read it, jumping up a fifth at “half” and dropping an octave to “walnut shell. I’ve read it different ways now, the tumbled out “walnut-shell” always the finishing dominant. I think also I said “empty” as the third, “half” as the fourth; 3,4,1.
    Did I mention I have tick fever?

  3. Bill – Thanks for this deep and detailed reading! I’m flattered. As you know, i tend to shy away from criticism, but I do very much enjoy hearing how others hear my poems.

    Yes, my parents’ house does have a veranda. The previous owners, back in the 50s, had delusions of Southern grandeur and augmented what had been a smallish, clapboard farmhouse with a ridiculous, wooden-columned front porch and veranda. I shouldn’t complain, thoush, because between the two of them we are able to eat most of our meals outside in the wwarmer months. Anyway, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of *our* veranda when I wrote this, but really something a bit more grand (hence that terminal “h,” you see).

    Sorry to hear you have tick fever – you mean Lyme disease, or is this something different? We’re just starting to get ticks here on the mountain, thanks to global warming.

  4. I’ve had a black walnut-half on my desk for the past three months. I threw it out on Thursday in a fit of tidying (rare for me) and now I wish I hadn’t…

  5. Not Lyme, probably not Rocky Mountain. More likely Erlicheosis or Babesis (sic). For the whole tick disease list:

    You treat first, ask later with a titer (whatever that is) if you are curious. In times past it may likely have brought the curtain down on what had been a vigorous life, either ending or morbidly curtailling it. I just pop some pills and look for more fun/trouble. What’s up with that? I am getting curious though about the titer. Don’t tell me you don’t have chiggers either!

    Thanks for pointing out the terminal “h”. Hadn’t noticed. And I don’t know how you have a porch and a veranda unless the porch is above?
    Anyway tasty poem, thanks and I sure I needn’t have tick fever to enjoy it.

  6. Pica – O.K., so you know exactly what I’m talking about, then (I know you share my love for wrens). Black walnut shells are so much more charismatic than English walnuts, aren’t they?

    Bill – Yikes. I never knew there were so many tick-borne ailments!

    Nope, no chiggers – not here, anyway. But state-wide, we are thoroughly infested with Lyme disease due to our super-abundant deer and white-footed mice (the alternate host).

  7. Me either. Not that you need any more motivation to mitigate climate change, but Ticks a pretty good one in my book.

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