Discover more from god, sex, smoke & sugar
On how to master gravity
lessons on survival in deep time
There was an old black walnut tree in my backyard growing up that I was sure was older than the house, older than my dad who grew up on the land where the house sat, older than my grandmother who still lived on the land, as old as the land itself and filled with just as much soul. She was beautiful and dominating and bigger than anything else around. I was a little girl and to me she was massive. Many times I found myself laying underneath and staring up through the branches, or attempting to climb her, or just hugging her trunk because she was big and sturdy and could hold me up without me even trying. She seemed to defy gravity.
There was a swingset next to the tree and sometimes I could swing almost high enough to snap a leaf or a twig off the lowest branches. Almost but not quite. She was much too tall for that. She defied even the gravity-defying death-defying leg-pumping swinging of my fearless skinny kid legs. She was stately in her defiance. She occupied another world.
Next to the tree was a very small stump. The stump had also been there as long as I could remember. It was older than me, maybe older than my dad, but certainly not as old as the black walnut tree. Every so often my dad would look out the large kitchen window and point to the stump and say, “That’s where we found you. Growing on that stump back there.” I would stare at the stump and imagine myself just a mushroom girl growing on a tree stump in the land of giant trees and baby stumps and wild things.
There was also a creek in our backyard where the water fairies and the spiders lived. It flowed with rain water and run-off from the fields, swampy with all manner of toxic farm chemicals. Laid across was a thin wooden plank connecting our spot of land to the larger farmland where my grandmother lived. More than once I fell in while running across it. The chemicals in the creek turned my white socks permanently green. After that my dad built a proper bridge and my world became a real fairyland, complete with a bridge and troll. I was the mushroom princess, forced to toil as a human because no one knew the magic I secretly possessed. On days when it had rained and the creek was high, I would drop leaves into the water and imagine these were letters to my family in the other world, the world from which I came and would one day return, the world I could feel when I put my arms around the trunk of that black walnut tree.
And then one day a big storm came. It rained so hard for so long that the creek flooded. The water spilled into our backyard and up into the basement. We watched as our cherished possessions floated in the murky depths along with hundreds of broken black walnuts. We counted how many steps were left before the waters would come right up to the first floor of our house and soak everything we owned. We counted and prayed and watched the basement fill to the brim.
Before the water had a chance to surface the stairs, the rain stopped and the flooding receded. We descended into the basement, once a carpeted playroom now just a pile of mud and debris, littered with ruined toys, destroyed furniture, and a thousand black walnut shells. We picked through the rubbish to find what could be saved. My mother unpeeled a sticky stack of photographs. “This is the third flood these photos have survived,” she said. Such are the stories of living in the plains of Illinois.
We brought our clothes and stuffed animals and photographs outside into the sunshine of a new day and laid them in the backyard. It took a moment to realize, our beautiful black walnut tree wasn’t reaching for the sky anymore. She’d been hurt by the power of the floodwater. She was damaged. She was leaning.
No longer the master of gravity, the tree was now at gravity’s mercy. Over the months the lean we detected that first day became so pronounced her leaves nearly touched the ground. My brother and my dad tried to save the tree by force, wrapping a large chain around the trunk and pulling her upright with the pickup. The tree refused to budge. My mom ran out to the yard yelling for them to stop.
“Let nature takes its course,” my mom reasoned. “If she falls, she falls.”
I moved away after that and forgot all about the tree. I didn’t take much notice when I visited. I assumed as everyone did, one day soon she would fall.
And then one summer I went back home and the tree looked better. She seemed taller, straighter, healthier. Every summer I noticed, things were changing. As the years passed into decades, against all odds our old black walnut tree straightened up completely.
These days there is hardly any evidence that for decades this tree lived her life bent over, cowed by life, nearly choked and broken by the deathly floodwaters that pushed her over. She is nearly completely vertical now. She grows. She sheds her walnuts. She has healed and continues to heal and grow.
It took time, over two decades. Mostly we didn’t notice, couldn’t see how she was rebuilding herself, had no sense of the accumulation of healing that happens over deep time. So many seasons, so many moons, so many deaths and rebirths in the fairyland surrounding her. The tree lived in her own time at her own pace and nature kept faith. And eventually, our beautiful old tree learned to master gravity again.