Elizabeth Volpe

Black Walnuts

Fact is, I want to like them, if for nothing else
than their name, all darkness and mystery, the click
in my mouth, my lips closing and falling open. But
I hate they way they hammer the roof, the raw
unstitching as their green—not black—jackets split
open, the way they spill their guts, black juice
spreading like squid ink. I don’t care that you can
harvest them, store them, cure them, or that
cookbooks praise their rich, smoky flavor with just
a hint of wine.
They have nothing to teach me.
So I’m surprised at the effort others expend
for black walnut bisque or walnut-crusted
catfish. Hulling these cranky old trolls requires
safety glasses, rubber gloves, old clothes
just to avoid their toxic juglone. Husking is
so difficult, in fact, that determined nutters
drive over them in a truck or Suburban.
Personally, I’d never try any of this, just as I’d
never hitchhike, since traveling without luggage
means there’s nothing between you and
your ghosts. When the sun pours onto our walnut-crusted
yard, I pretend the lawn is dressed in nuggets
of gold. How eager the mind is to be fooled.
No wonder the walnuts have enemies, like
walnut weevils and huskfly maggots. To check
for infestation, drop the nuts into a bucket of water.
Nuts without injury will sink
, a kind of Trial by Ordeal,
like all those medieval prisoners exonerated only because
they drowned. The directions are very specific:
discard any nuts that float, and I think that’s too bad,
for they would bob like green buoys if we let them.
Our course is steered by innocuous words: if,
without, until
. I hate the way black walnuts attack
like cannonballs and then give up the fight. I hate the messiness
of their capitulation. I wish gravity weren’t such a slave
to convention. I wish I could love more. But it’s autumn,
and the trees are bloated, trying to rid themselves of everything
despite the frigid nights, their limbs undressed, the Greek chorus
waiting in the wings, the floods, the fires, cracks in the planet.
All this just to get the dying over with.

Elizabeth Volpe
“Black Walnuts” first appeared in Epicenter, Volume 11, 2007.