If only the far corner of the world were some place we could retreat to. Those were the words running through my head when I woke up this morning. I’m not sure what preceded them in my dream, who said them or why. But half an hour later I came across a poem by John Haines, “Circles and Squares,” which admonishes, “A square world can’t be true,” and celebrates all things round:
[T]he tipi sewn in a circle,
the cave a mouth blown hollow
in a skull of sand,
as the cliff swallow shapes
to its body a globe
of earth, saliva, and straw.
When I logged onto the Internet an hour later, I saw that a brutal crackdown was underway in Burma.
The fat green globes that are ripe black walnuts have been raining down all week, going thump on the lawn, splat on the driveway, bam on the roof. Yesterday in my parents’ kitchen, a walnut falling on the electric line where it comes into the house reverberated like thunder. And when walnuts hit the drainpipes just right, they sound like rifle shots.
Both houses are ringed with the trees, which are also busy shedding their leaves. It’s astonishing that trees which leaf out so late in the spring and shed so early in the fall can gather enough solar energy to produce such dependably heavy crops of nuts. There’s something about black walnuts that defies reason. Gray squirrels in the winter often expend more energy excavating and shelling black walnuts than they get from the meat inside, according to the authoritative North American Tree Squirrels.
Currently, the squirrels are hard at work husking and burying, leaving little piles of walnut husks all over the farm. But much as the squirrels love them, for most humans black walnuts are more of an acquired taste. I find their pungency makes them better as a condiment than a main ingredient in most stews and pasta sauces. These days, I must admit we buy them pre-shelled and chopped fine from a local Amish store, which sells them so cheaply that it wouldn’t make sense to husk and shell them ourselves unless we valued our labor at only fifty cents an hour. But when I was a kid — and earning a 25-cent allowance a week — shelling walnuts was a yearly chore that I came to dread. The shells must be cracked open with a sledge hammer, and then one has to sift slowly through the meat to pick out small pieces of shell, which are hard enough to break a tooth on. And the husks quickly stain one’s hands a rich yellow-brown that can last up to a week. You can imagine the kind of teasing I came in for from my schoolmates: “Hey, Bonta! Did you’ns run out of toilet paper?” Har har.
Black walnut wood is famously dark, close-grained and beautiful, and farmers used to plant the slow-growing trees as an inheritance for their grandchildren. But they aren’t necessarily the best choice for landscaping, because their roots release a chemical that’s toxic to many other woody and herbacecous plants. Nevertheless, my mother says she’s tempted to write an essay for one of the birding magazines on black walnuts as an ideal yard tree for birders. How many other trees are virtually leafless for both spring and fall migrations? We eat supper out on the front porch whenever the weather permits, and Mom usually has her binoculars at the ready. Lately she’s been able to watch large numbers of black-throated green warblers flitting through the yard while we eat — all the while the walnuts are going bam on the flat roof above us. “If you want to see the birds, plant black walnuts!” she enthuses. And digging for the nuts keeps the squirrels away from the birdfeeders in the winter, too, to some extent. Unlike many birders, we don’t have to spend our winters at war with the squirrels.
There’s almost always a squirrel or two residing in our barn, which also has a few black walnut trees adjoining it. If you know where to look, you can find middens of empty walnuts that have been eviscerated by strong rodent teeth scooping out each hemisphere. These make excellent but thoroughly unpredictable projectiles, owing to their odd shapes. When we were kids, we used to turn the upstairs of the barn into a battlefield. Low walls separated the two hay mows from the central threshing floor, and we crouched behind them and hurled the squirrel-chewed walnuts back and forth at each other until most of our ammunition was spent. Then it was time to dash out onto the threshing floor and gather up as many fallen walnuts as we could before the fusillade became too heavy, using trash can lids as shields. The walnuts weren’t quite big enough to leave bruises, but they definitely stung.
Eventually the supply would run out entirely as walnuts disappeared into a thousand odd corners. Decades later we’re still finding them nestled behind stacks of old doors or at the bottom of dusty milk jars. I pick them up and remember for a few moments the violence my brothers and I used to perpetrate on each other, even without television or video games to show us how. I remember the constant apprehension we felt, growing up during the Cold War, that someday soon this round world would be blown open by a nuclear confrontation. Even then we understood that were no far corners to hide in; for better or worse, we were all in this together.
If it weren’t for Burma, I might not be here. My parents were both students at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and they first met at Burma-Bucknell Weekend in 1960. Bucknell had been founded as a Baptist university in the 1850s, and owing I believe to missionary contacts, was the first American university to accept Burmese students, within a year or two of its founding. In the century that followed, it remained the preeminent destination for Burmese students studying abroad, including, when my parents were there, a handful of saffron-robed Buddhist monks. Burma-Bucknell Weekend was an annual event attended by Burmese exchange students from all over the eastern U.S., and was also one of the biggest events of Bucknell’s social calendar. American students volunteered to act as guides for visiting Burmese, and that’s how my parents met: they were the last two volunteers left waiting for their charges. One of them struck up a conversation, and they’ve been talking ever since.
By 1961, they were — in the parlance of the day — going steady. Once again they had both volunteered for Burma-Bucknell Weekend, and were in the banquet hall when the Burmese ambassador to the U.S. suddenly turned pale, got up and left. Someone stood up and announced that a military coup had been attempted. The Burmese reacted with shock and horror, and the banquet quickly dissolved into knots of agitated discussion. Worried about their families, I suppose, most of the Burmese students returned to their home institutions in the following days. A few months later, another coup occurred, and Burma has been under military rule ever since. “We’ve always assumed that most of the students we knew were killed,” my mother says. Burma-Bucknell Weekend was no more.
So many buried disasters
their cities were walls
underfoot or climbing.
My feeling for you
goes out and returns,
even the shot from a rifle
falls in an arc at last.
So many boxes; the windows
don’t break soon enough,
and the doors never fail to shut.
(from The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer: Collected Poems by John Haines)