Black Walnuts in the Age of Certainty

It was spindly and pitiable ten years ago, barely my height. Jackson and I had cleared all the brush around this lonely little tree and then had to decide whether to let the sad sapling grace our newly expanded lawn: to cut or not to cut?

Home from college that summer and working for a landscaper, my son said definitively that it was a sumac, a “trash tree,” and he’d be happy to do the honors. I wasn’t so sure and consulted a dog-eared field guide.

As near as I could tell by its leaves, bark and location, it might be any number of annoyingly similar species, several of which produce nuts when mature, every two years in one case: perhaps a black walnut tree, whose rich dark wood is so prized that people rustle them like cattle. My neighbor’s property boasts several, and he had given me a seedling to transplant; but sad to report, it didn’t take.

I said to Jackson let’s wait and see. It would take a few years. Ax in hand, he shook his head at this clearly unsatisfying decision. The days of “Father Knows Best” are long gone.

We do crave certitude, all the more because it can be so elusive. Nature is nothing if not complex and perplexing. We share the planet with an estimated 50 million life forms, from great apes to the bacteria in our colons. There are thousands in your neighborhood alone.

Can you guess how many species we have identified so far and bestowed august Latin names upon? Naturalists count definitively some 2 million species, less than five percent of the total. Some go extinct before we even get introduced.

Religion provides many of us with a sense of assurance in an ambiguous world. Right and wrong are clear, and there is life after death, at least for some. Historically, however, the growing awareness of the number and diversity of our fellow travelers on spaceship earth was disconcerting to many of the faithful.

What was God thinking when he created this riot of flora and fauna? How many virtually indistinguishable species of Galapagos finches or dung beetles do we need? Besides, our first cousin, the gorilla, which only came to the attention of the western world in 1847, seemed too nearly a satire of homo sapiens for comfort.

No less ambitious than theologians, scientists also want to solve the mystery of it all. For more than a century they have been striving in vain to concoct a grand unified theory of physics that will explain everything, including the origin of the universe, which expands apace with our increasing ability to observe it.

Astrophysicists in recent years have discovered more than a thousand new planets, some quite similar to ours – i.e. in “habitable zones” of distant solar systems. And count on this: they will find many others. Twenty years ago, we knew as much about such things as Galileo did in 1640.

And the universe that scientists describe is arguably as fantastic as the cosmos that our religions urge us to believe in. The person who definitively comes to understand “it all” would be a God-like figure indeed.

Short of that, we seek certainty where we can find it in our own little worlds, for example, in politicians who tell us they can do miraculous things: like build a phantasmagorical fence to keep the Mexicans out and get the Mexicans to pay for it.

Ironically, knowledge can be the enemy of certitude. The more we learn the more bewildering the world seems to be. Without that handy field guide, the scraggly tree in our yard would have been a goner. And neither Jackson nor I would have been the wiser.

Our black walnut tree now is taller than the house. We awoke up one recent morning to find all the leaves gone but hundreds of lacrosse-ball-sized nuts remaining. We keep our distance: a direct hit would be no laughing matter.

But the view from afar is splendid. It resembles nothing so much as a macabre Christmas tree, perfectly ridiculous in its satirical grandeur, as if to say, “Look what you would have missed.” It is the only tree that has made me laugh.

This fall red and grey squirrels scurry beneath it and perch on its branches, enjoying a pre-winter feast. On Jackson’s visits home, I never fail to point out its progress, of course.