There is, in my former backyard in a nearby city, a towering black walnut tree in which I take a particular pride. It is the largest walnut tree hereabouts. Of course, it was not I who planted the nut from which this lofty deciduous growth emerged. Rather, it was doubtless one of the wayward Gray Squirrels that planted the nut in the soil of my yard. Nevertheless, I look upon this tree with paternal pride, interest and kindness; because I watched its growth during forty cycles of the seasons and now admire its bountiful abundance of autumn fruit.
These black walnuts appear in their largest numbers every second year. But even during the autumns of meager productivity my former city neighbors look, and talk, with disdain about the natural fruits that fall to the earth. To these people the nuts and leaves are a nuisance. But within the fallen nuts rests the genetic heritage of my paternal tree, and the squirrels work diligently to scatter these genetic packages throughout the neighborhood. That some of their efforts are successful is evident in several younger black walnut trees rising above other buildings or trees in the area. Although neither the people nor the squirrels are satisfied with their relationships with my former tree, the tree has asserted its will successfully. Sometimes, on a clear and windy day during late summer or autumn, a shower of twisting and turning leaves falls from the tree, in an annual magical dance of nature. As the leaves drift to the ground engaged in their animated performance, the sunlight sometimes turns their yellow cloak momentarily in shining flakes of silver. The effect is sublime. This, too, my former neighbors do not see. No, to them the falling leaves are merely so much ground litter to be raked up, bagged and discarded. Never have they stood in rapture watching the glory of this leaf choreography before them. The harsh sights and sounds of the city have dulled their sense of wonder and appreciation of nature, and the fleeting magic escapes them as easily as the leaves drift downward.
As the seasons progress, the sounds and sights emitted from my tree also change. In late summer, the high buzz of a cicada proclaims its presence to all creatures who would hear although its primary purpose is to assure a continuation of cicadaness. Later, as the autumn leaf choreography continues, the loud, harsh squawk of a Blue Jay would greet my early morning tree inspections. Once, on a damp, rainy September evening I watched in the dim light as a special visitor landed on the tree then flew to the ground and secured food from some walnuts that a passing squirrel earlier had broken open. Never previously had I seen a Wood Thrush in my city yard. My joy that evening was boundless, for there is something very special about that woodland songster whose flute-like song catches and amplifies the soul of wilderness. For half an hour I watched, and waited, and listened, hoping for a song in the evening mist. The vision of that marvelous thrush at the base of my walnut tree--striking in a dress of brown, white, and dark spots--remains etched deeply in my memory.
Later still, after most of the leaves have fallen, blustery winds flow past the towering trunk and thick limbs, creating a low, monotonous, woodwind sound. Occasionally, a solitary Dark-eyed Junco chatters from a lofty perch, but such episodes are uncommon. More common, during winter's harshest moments, are the crystal-like sounds and sights of icy armor that coats the tree's exterior as winds--and the sun's gentle caress--exert their influence. And then one day, as if by magic, spring arrives and the buds burst forth into new, bright green leaves. The first American Robins arrive and survey their city surroundings from the tree's elevated perches. The House Finches, having already begun their renewal of life, also perch on the tree's limbs before flying to a nearby nest to resume their housekeeping. The squirrels too explore the trunk and limbs of the tree while seeking shelter and safety from a barking dog. Another cycle in the walnut tree has begun.
About the author
Donald S. Heintzelman is the author of 22 published books and booklets about birds and other wildlife and is a nationally recognized authority on hawk migrations and hawk watching. His birding and ornithological activities have taken him to remote corners of the world. He is also an accomplished photographer whose photographs have appeared in leading magazines and newspapers. He currently lives in the rural southeastern Pennsylvania countryside where he occupies an eyrie in an old farmhouse.