By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Black Walnut Tree’ is a poem by the American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), a poet who has perhaps not received as much attention from critics as she deserves. It’s been estimated that she was the bestselling poet in the United States at the time of her death, so a few words of analysis about some of her best-known poems seem appropriate.
You can read ‘The Black Walnut Tree’, a poem in which a mother and daughter discuss whether to sell the tree in their backyard for timber, here.
‘The Black Walnut Tree’: summary
The poem is composed of a single stanza. The poem’s speaker (who may or may not be Mary Oliver herself) tells us that she and her mother discuss whether to sell the black walnut tree in their garden for its lumber, in order to provide money so they can pay off the mortgage on their home.
She reflects that the tree will probably be damaged by the natural vagaries of the weather, in any case: some storm will cause the wind the attack the tree’s branches, which in turn will fall and damage the house.
best decision. She points out to her mother that the tree’s roots are growing into the drains of the cellar under the house, and her mother responds that the leaves of the black walnut tree are getting heavier every year, making it harder to gather the tree’s fruit.
But just as they are starting to convince themselves that they should sell the walnut tree for its wood, they are both stirred by a feeling for something that is more important than money. It is a kind of impulse which reminds them of their deep and natural links to the earth – and, by association, to the tree. So they end up talking about selling the tree but not going through with it.
That night, the speaker of the poem tells us that she dreams of her ancestors, who had emigrated to the United States from Bohemia in central Europe, planting vines and trees in the fields of Ohio. She and her mother both know that they would feel ashamed if they gave up the walnut tree that had stood in their backyard, the backyard that both the speaker’s father and her mother’s father once knew.
Because of this, they let the black walnut tree continue to swing in the yard for another year, and each month they feel the ‘whip-crack’ of their mortgage repayments, which they must pay some other way.
‘The Black Walnut Tree’: analysis
Mary Oliver once asserted that paying the rent is ‘crucial’ but ultimately ‘not important’. In other words, it is important for a poet to ensure they are protected against starvation, but money in itself is not of great value to someone who views poetry as their (higher) calling in life. For poets, there are more important things in life than money. ‘The Black Walnut Tree’ is the perfect illustration of this attitude.
The impression we gather is that both mother and daughter are trying to talk themselves into selling the tree, even though they don’t especially want to. The poem’s closing reference to the ‘whip-crack’ of their mortgage – an image which indicates that they feel the almost punitive pressure of their monthly mortgage repayments – tells us that they money they could raise from selling the tree would be useful to them. In other words, they are not just seeking to make a bit of extra pocket money for luxuries: they need money to keep a roof over their heads, and money is (we infer) tight.
So they are trying to justify the decision to cut down the tree (which has literally and physically become part of their home: note the roots under the cellar), in order to raise some money, but deep down they appear to know this is not the right thing to do. They would rather live like a slave worker being whipped by her master than submit to the temptation to sell the tree to satisfy the bank for another month or two.
In this regard, the imagery of the poem, with its garden, tree, and striking reference to ‘crawl[ing] with shame’, summons that archetypal story of temptation: the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, which saw Adam and Eve give in to the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
The serpent, which persuaded Eve to succumb to her temptation, was given the punishment of crawling on its belly for the rest of time, while Adam and Eve were given a different punishment: from now on, they would know what it is to feel shame. This line in ‘The Black Walnut Tree’ summons this biblical story and suggests the higher spiritual meaning of the tree and what it stands for.
This is not to suggest that ‘The Black Walnut Tree’ is a religious poem, but it is, like so much of Mary Oliver’s poetry, a Romantic poem about the spiritual qualities found within nature. The reference to the shovel implies the deep-rooted (no pun intended) connections we feel to the earth, but the tree also possesses personal ancestral significance for the speaker. It was planted by one of her ancestors several generations ago, so cutting it down would represent a kind of assault on a different kind of tree: the family tree, or line.
‘The Black Walnut Tree’: form
Mary Oliver’s poetry is often written in free verse: that is, verse lacking a regular rhyme scheme (and often, any rhyme whatsoever), and with no regular metre or rhythm. The line lengths are also irregular. This lends the poem a loose, conversational feel, which is in keeping with the intimate nature of the speaker’s monologue, recounting a conversation between herself and her mother.