A Tree Falls in Baltimore: Ode to a Black Walnut

A version of this essay first appeared in Maryland Life.

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The earth is brown and barren now. A nothingness, where recently stood one of the oldest, largest and more storied Black Walnut trees in Maryland. Hallowed ground, where Civil War soldiers once rested beneath its expansive canopy. Where Victorian women in fine millinery sipped lemonade under its branches.

Where just last summer, my three girls and I held hands as we strained to wrap ourselves around the Black Walnut’s massive trunk. The four of us, cheeks pressed against the rough bark, fingertips barely touching, couldn’t close the circle.

For more than 150 years, the Black Walnut stood majestically in Baltimore City’s Cylburn Arboretum, an historic icon seemingly immune to disease and Mother Nature. But in July of 2011, the tree succumbed to a summer storm that twisted it apart in a vortex of howling wind.

It’s true that the tree lived on borrowed time. Decades ago, something, lightning, perhaps, damaged the tree so badly that a gaping hole appeared at its base. In the 1950’s, as was the practice of the day, arborists took extreme measures to save the Black Walnut in a way that I’d never seen before. A tower of café-a-lait-colored bricks filled the void in the Black Walnut. The bricks ascended from the ground into two of the enormous branches, cementing one side of the grayish, furrowed bark to the other, sometimes covering a two foot gap.

Just months before the tree dismembered, I brought my three young girls to witness this curiosity, hoping they’d be equally enamored. Gratefully, my middle daughter spotted the trunk and took a few running steps toward it, squealing along the newly paved path.

“It’s a fort!” my eight-year-old said excitedly. “Can we go in it?”

“It’s too small for a fort,” rationalized the 11-year-old.

“Was it a smokehouse?” she asked as I rubbed a finger against a roofing shingle that had been wedged between some faltering bricks.

We gazed up into the dozen broad, chunky branches, each as wide as a human torso. Some stretched 25 feet and dripped heavily with splaying branches, each one tipped by narrow, finger-long leaflets and moss-green walnuts that weighed it down like heavy rings on a royal hand. From elephantine trunk to elevated tip, the Black Walnut stood nearly as tall as the three-story mansion behind it.

No one knows for certain when the tree was planted. In 1863, when local mining heir Jesse Tyson built his lavish Italianate home on this hilltop, he noted the Black Walnut, and two others like it. Only one remains now, not nearly as stately, and most likely born from an errant, sprouted nut of the greater tree lost last summer.

The bright green husks littered the ground then, and my youngest girls took to stomping the ping-pong sized shells to get to the bitter nut inside. The busted fruit smelled like an odd mix of lemon and Bubbalicious gum. The black inner-coating threatened to stain the outer-coating of their pink sneakers.

For an afternoon we picnicked under the Black Walnut, listened to an oration of its history on the cell phone, sketched the plants growing at its base, and photographed the sun glinting off those peculiar bricks inside. At least until threatening storm clouds darkened the sky. Wind began to whip and we rushed to the car between pelting raindrops, but worried not at all for the tree.

It was, we believed, rooted in history and cemented at its core.


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