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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

I’ve been in an 18-year relationship.

It’s survived many a storm including a marriage and a second partner, and yet, at times, has been more contentious than both of them combined.

This relationship is with a black walnut.

Juglans nigra is a unique tree. If you have one on your urban property and you are reading this, your lips are pursed, your eyes narrowed. In late September or early October, you are likely three-quarters of the way through the hazardous season, when falling fruit as hard as baseballs threaten the skulls of you, your children, your neighbours and those that reside next door to them. Patio umbrellas are mandatory while dining in the garden beginning in early August and because of the volume of fruit this season, I wore my bike helmet while working in the garden. Also this past summer, a branch laden with multiple clusters of walnuts dangled precariously over my neighbour’s trampoline. I prayed the branch would fall while the family was out of town, but it hung there until I had a couple of sleepless nights worrying someone would get hurt; I ended up hiring an arborist to slice off the branch of doom.

And then there are the squirrels. Perched high up in the tree they gnaw on the hard, outer husk of the hundreds of limey yellow missiles and discard the bits which rain down to the ground leaving green and black oozy pieces that stain stone, metal and furniture upholstery. The black, brown and rust-coloured rodents sit on every available surface of the tree, fence and in the yard, holding their bounty in front of their face chewing, looking as though they are blowing up a giant balloon. The resulting all-day cacophony of munching sometimes becomes white noise and sometimes makes me yell at the squirrels who, in concert, look up from their nuts for a nano-second before digging back in. I swear that incessant chewing is the reason I am now inflicted with misophonia and now require loud music while dining with others. Kidding. Sort of.

Concussion potentiality, messiness and neuroses onset aside, the black walnut is also known as allelopathic: it releases a chemical substance, in this case, juglone, through its roots, as a competitive strategy. Juglone is toxic to a significant number of common plants and thus plant selection for a garden that is shared with a black walnut requires a significant amount of planning. There have been many a fancy new plant variety that I brought home with hopes that maybe the black walnut mellowed – that it would concede to a pretty new neighbour such as the sweet white echinacea I lovingly planted just beyond the walnut’s root zone: it would have been better off brought indoors as a cut flower. Even species on plant lists that are issued on the websites of agricultural and horticultural authorities fail to flourish. Like the white echinacea, hollyhocks, roses, grasses, irises and peonies have all withered away into the earth at the end of their season, never to return.

I’ve learned that what does work for this beast of a tree are native plants which are plants that naturally grow in the area. Native plants are important to have around since they provide beneficial pollinators like birds, bees and butterflies with seeds, nectar and pollen, and contribute to a healthy and biodiverse environment. Native plants for this area are generally quite drought tolerant, are pretty easy to grow and mostly don’t get ravaged by pests, so overall, experience less stress. Less stress means plants won’t need interventions such as pesticides to keep them alive. But who uses pesticides any more in the garden, anyway?

Have I thought of getting rid of this ginormous pain in my garden and have I cursed the person who thought this tree was a great choice to plant in a tiny postage stamp backyard? Yes, on both counts; however, getting rid of this tree that stands at about 50 feet with a trunk circumference of 87 inches, is next to impossible. It is one of the largest trees in my area, third to the even bigger black walnut down the road that can be seen from my back deck (and coincidentally where my boyfriend lives) and is protected under the municipal Tree Protection Bylaw. Rightfully so. Trees are hugely important to the urban forest and for all of those that inhabit it. Trees absorb air pollution, they keep houses cooler in the summer, and act as a windbreak to keep them warmer in the winter. Trees keep cities, which are heat sinks, cooler overall and more livable and as the climate warms will be even more important: a properly managed urban forest can help decrease the energy load on a city’s power grid. Trees are a destination and home for numerous birds and insect species and are essential in keeping our environment in balance.

From time to time I think about my life without the black walnut. I fantasize about the hollyhocks and the peonies, but I can’t imagine a spring without the cardinals who arrive every year and who loudly sing their distinct songs before dawn or the blue jays that never fail to make me smile. I’d miss falling asleep on a lazy weekend afternoon as I look up into the underside of the massive canopy, bits of sky peeking through the branches, before of course the threat of descending nuts.

Every spring, I wonder what the season holds: what are the chances are of being knocked unconscious while barbecuing? Will there will be a bumper crop of missiles or will I get a year of underproduction and respite? Regardless, I’m stuck with this tree, so like any good relationship, I’ll never get complacent, I’ll listen to its needs and give it the space it requires. In return, my walnut offers a home to wildlife and a reminder that acceptance, instead of resistance, is the better way to be.

Carol-Ann Granatstein lives in Toronto.

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