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Juglans Nigra/(Eastern Black Walnut).

In Cubing: A Writing Exercise from Cowan and Cowan,* circa University of Virginia Ed School Days, with a Preponderance of Associations and Digressions

Describe it. Look at the subject closely and describe what you see. Colors, shapes, sizes, and so forth.

Green and round, the walnut bore small black spots and fissures, with a slight pebbling of the surface. Light green, the color of new moss. A citrusy smell overpowered with its sweetness. Some unknown external pressure caused this walnut from the driveway to crack, and as I pulled at the jagged edge, more of the scent infused the air. I separated the outer covering to reveal a black sphere, encased almost entirely by a layer of gold. The surface of the walnut gave with pressure from my index finger; I could squeeze it like a grapefruit. I wasn't allowed to eat grapefruit while taking Tarceva, my cancer drug. Something about the citric acid interfered with the pill's properties. Unlike a violated grapefruit, which left only a film of stickiness on the fingers, the violated black walnut stained my fingers yellowish-brown.

Compare it. What is it similar to? What is it different from?

Before the description above existed, before this cubing exercise found its object, I discovered a comparison. Black walnut = tennis ball. Black walnuts dropped every autumn in my driveway and yard; no novelty there. But the other day I looked out at the driveway from an upstairs window and thought I saw a tennis ball, also not a novelty in our household. My sons played tennis, and we'd resurrected their balls when we learned how much our dog Clover enjoyed fetching them with her innate retriever drive and chewing them with her strong oral fixation and need to exercise her jaw. Yet Clover was banished from the front yard and driveway due to the heavy traffic on our busy street.

When I went to investigate the object on the driveway, I realized that what looked like a circular, spongy yellow-green tennis ball was a large black walnut. The largest I'd ever seen. That comparison launched the cubing experience.

From an external visual inspection, the walnut and the tennis ball appeared similar. But Id watched Clover destroy enough tennis balls with her teeth to know that the inside of the ball was hollow. After she chewed off the soft, fuzzy exterior, she ripped through the spherical material made of some sort of cork or foam. She gnawed it open, revealing empty air.

That citrus smell provoked the grapefruit comparison. But on the inside, the walnut didn't have the circular web or the spoked segments that a grapefruit or an orange had, yet the response of the exterior shell to the pressure of my hand transported me to the breakfast table of my childhood, eating with my father. Back then, as I squeezed a grapefruit half to release the juice, I allowed it to drip into the serving bowl beneath but also into the spoon I held over the bowl. The simple squeezing ritual enabled my younger self to gauge the accuracy of my aim.

Associate it. What does it make you think of? What comes into your mind? It can he similar things, or you can think of different things, different times, places, people. Just let your mind go and see what associations you have for this subject.

My brain had already leapt to association before I finished the comparison. In those early years, I always ate breakfast with my father. Perhaps my mother enjoyed her food at the counter; how could she sit down if she was making breakfast in shifts for her family? Standing over the frying pan, she served as our breakfast slave. Did that realization somehow diminish my memory of eating breakfast with my father?

Eggs, father, spoon, grapefruit half. The painstaking attention my mother paid to the citrus half with the special serrated knife, curving around the circumference of pink flesh to pry grapefruit from the sides, and then entering each segment with the knife's blade, separating it from membrane walls erected between bits of flesh. All that effort to satisfy our taste buds.

I missed grapefruit.

The black of the walnut reminded me of ash from a charcoal fire. Grilling transformed briquettes into small obsidian cubes with graying edges. When walnuts opened, cracked under a car on the driveway, the black material escaped, clumping in dark patches on the asphalt, like flattened briquettes. Or tar. Or a newborn's stool-meconium. Chewed tobacco some stranger spat on the blacktopped surface of a parking lot, causing my father to teach me the meaning of "spittoon" and "cuspidor" so he could tell me a bar joke: One man asks another fellow: How many doors are there in a bar? Answer: Three. The front door, the back door, and the cuspidor.

But when the fellow later repeated the joke, he forgot the fancier word with "dor" at the end and said "spittoon" instead, rendering the joke senseless. Intended to be a joke about meanings and synonyms, cuspidor = spittoon, the riddle cast aspersions on the intellect of the fellow who retold the joke, forgetting the more sophisticated word for the vessel holding spat tobacco. I tried to dismiss any recollection of what ethnic group or nationality my father may have insulted with his relishing of the joke. I tried to dismiss also worries about my own waning intellect, neurons and brain cells polluted with toxic cancer-fighting drugs. How likely would I be to remember "cuspidor" instead of "spittoon?" Even in my earlier years, I rarely told jokes, didn't remember punch lines. I tried to focus on recalling that my father liked bar jokes, beer nuts, and bars in general. Bars in Pontiac, bars in Waterford, bars in Caro.

He inherited black walnut trees years ago at the house in Caro, Michigan, and I first learned of their cycle that fall after he purchased the property on East Frank Street.

Analyze it. Tell how it's made. (You don't have to know; you can make it up.)

I possessed little memory of plant reproduction from my high school biology days, though I often told my children I loved biology. The word cotyledon came to mind, but I couldn't recall what it meant, couldn't recall a thing about how plants made babies. Yet I could trace origins. The black walnut came from the black walnut tree. A deciduous tree. A hardwood. The grayish bark of the tree was composed of vertical ridges and valleys. Botanists reported that in the fall, the female flowers ripened into fruits (or nuts) with a brownish-green husk and a brown nut. The husk produced a small, hard seed.

The seed was not really a nut, however, but a "drupe." Drupe orbs wore a green, springy, tennis-ball exterior. If you cracked the exterior open, a substance just beneath the surface surrounded an inner hull. Yet black walnuts had a reputation for being difficult to crack. People used car tires to crack the hulls, sometimes creating devices designed to separate nut from hull.

So many of the nuts littered our driveway now, on this day I discovered the large one. More piled up on the side of our lawn next to the O'Lien's house. I should pick them up and bag them. The guy who mowed our lawn, Paul, collected them for us one year. He knew someone who would pay for them, taking them off our hands, but only if we didn't want them.

Since they were green when they first dropped, you didn't realize why they were called black until you cracked them open. The first time Clover came in with the odd sweet-citrus smell and the yellow-brown and black streaked across her white fur, I worried she'd gained access to the Wolverine pipeline that traveled under the ground just south of our yard. But she'd rolled in cracked nuts, the black substance like the tannin in tea keeping patches of her cream-colored fur darkened until Christmas.

Plant biology explained the cycle that deciduous trees went through each year, especially in terms of how they dropped their leaves, yet the dropping of the walnuts became a more significant event largely because of their heft and the sound they made when they landed. Each year we heard them drop from our second-story bedroom window. A tree just above the line of our house bore branches extending out over our sunroom. The sunroom roof sloped down from our rear bedroom window. When the drupes dropped, they thwacked the roof with thunks and then rolled down the slant of the roof to fall into the back yard. Thunk, roll, drop. Thunk, roll, drop. Thunk, roll, drop. The pattern repeated itself during the fall, the timbre of thunks changing only when the drupes hit an intersection of shingles. This year's crop produced full-bodied thunks, the nuts themselves loud in size, like ten-pound babies that surprised petite mothers.

When I researched that process, I learned a technical term for the dropping: "abscission."

As I tried to absorb the details of abscission, I saw other words with which I was familiar. Lignin. In elementary school, children learned that lignin helps leaves to drop. Another word appeared-"parenchyma"-one that threatened with its complexity. I associated it with cancer. In plants, parenchyma referred to the soft parts of plants-the leaves, the flowers or berries. In the world of cancer, parenchyma referred to the part of tissue found outside the circulatory system, and the purpose of that portion was to execute special functions of the tissue.

What I learned about cancer was much simpler than anything I absorbed in this black walnut drupe-dropping process I investigated. Cells multiplied for unknown reasons; they often couldn't be stopped. I could study to discern how things worked, but after a time the words and meanings blurred, and the answer to my questions became a simple repetition of five syllables: pro-lif-er-ation, pro-lif-er-a-tion, pro-lif-er-a-tion.

Apply it. Tell what you can do with it, how it can he used.

Plant it as an ornamental tree in your park or garden. Dye your hair with the black substance. Bake some black walnuts into your nut bread or serve them with your fish or chicken.

Build a bookshelf, a floor, a paddle, a gun, or a coffin with the dark rich hardwood.

Create a three-dimensional pyramid by piling the walnuts atop one another in a corner of your back yard. Select another large walnut to bowl from ten feet away and crash the pyramid.

Sketch with them, as if they were fat stubs of charcoal or charcoal briquettes.

Some people believed you could make a tincture with the hull of the black walnut to kill off intestinal parasites. Others asserted you could also take the tincture as a cancer cure. (The American Cancer Society doesn't validate this claim. I do not eat black walnuts for my cancer; I drink turmeric tea, and I take my daily oral targeted therapy. Tarceva. Generic name, erlotinib.)

My father used charcoal briquettes and a refrigerator shelf to create a makeshift grill on which we barbecued most summers during my childhood. The last time I ate steak with my dad, Tim and I bought meat and cooked it on a similar grill in the lot outside his assisted living home in Clarkston. One of us tended the steaks; the other tended my father. He loved rib-eyes.

Argue for or Against it. Go ahead and take a stand. Use any kind of reasons you want to-rational, silly, or anywhere in between.

I wanted to say, "Cut those trees down!" The drupes posed a nuisance, and they contained an insidious poison. These vagabond orbs radiated disappointment. When they were new and green and spongy, there was a novelty there, but then they started to get underfoot, easy to trip over, black fissures in the green shell making them unsightly.

That one summer a few years ago, Tim tried to grow tomatoes, like he had when we lived in Virginia, and even though he planted four varieties, none flourished. As vines withered, his sadness expanded. I tried to understand what longing dwelled within him so deeply, what unfulfilled desire he wanted to capture and satisfy with the beefsteak or the heirloom.

We'd tried to grow tomatoes on the balcony of our last apartment in Virginia, the apartment we left to move back to Michigan a short month after Rachel arrived. When he stood out on that balcony on the day we left, gazing at the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance, small tears slipped down his face onto Rachel's head. Tears so quiet I couldn't hear them. Not like when he learned on the phone a few years earlier that his dad had died back in Michigan, when he fell to his knees in the hallway next to the living room, a loud, solitary mangled sob falling onto the carpet with him and the phone.

A few years after Tim's failed tomato yield here in Michigan, I read a John Schneider column in the Lansing State Journal about how black walnut trees produced something in the soil that became toxic to certain other plants, especially tomatoes, planted in close proximity.

Juglone, it was called. Tim's tomatoes never had a chance.

My father wanted to cut the trees in Caro down. I don't know if he hated the drupes scattered on the two-rut dirt driveway, or if he knew about the toxicity that I learned about only years later. He inherited grape arbors when he bought the house, two of them in the back yard. For a few years, he made red wine with special devices and bottles he stored back in our Waterford basement. Perhaps the grapes didn't grow very well. Perhaps he lost interest or needed to juggle one less ball. He liked to try new ventures, and he'd successfully bought and sold a small house in the community a few years earlier, sprucing up the house, making improvements, and earning a nice profit. He yearned to work through that process again. Revitalize, restore. He aspired to be a flipper, long before reality television existed and popularized the concept and the trade.

But that house on 530 East Frank Street wiped him out. We kids didn't want to move to Caro for our high school years; we didn't want to live in a small, landlocked town in the thumb, even though the two-story house rose majestic to our younger, naive eyes, larger by far than the one we lived in back in Waterford. We didn't want to relinquish our suburban home on a dirt road because despite its puny size, the house stood in the neighborhood we knew, with a lake just around the block and friends we'd known since birth.

And then there was the divorce. All the while he spent his hard-earned dollars pleading with the workmen to restore this house he loved at 530 East Frank up in Caro while he continued to work at General Motors in Pontiac. Before the fixes happened, he learned about the multiple sclerosis diagnosis and retired on disability, dying just a few years later. The house returned to the state in which he'd purchased it, save the layers of wallpaper we'd peeled from the walls. Replaced by layers of dust and grime, boxes of uninstalled faucets and light fixtures, and swollen window sashes that wouldn't let in the air.

My father had rejoiced when Id married a handy man, one who could use a drill and saw, climb a ladder. A few weeks after I discovered the mammoth black walnut in the driveway, a soft rain began to pelt our house, and my husband, alerted that a thunderstorm would soon reach our area, carted the extension ladder to the back of the house. As the water drops grew, arriving faster, the wind picking up, spatters becoming slanted sheets, Tim tried to climb the sunroom roof to clean the eavestroughs. Empty the debris from black walnut tree leaves.

The water trapped in the clogged eavestroughs spilled over the edges of the aluminum and seeped down the sides of the house, creeping into the basement where wet had already taken up residence along with acceptable levels of radon that probably didn't cause my cancer. I opened the back-screen door, stuck my head out into the rain, and called, "Don't be a fucking idiot." Even though he was trained as an adolescent to walk on roofs for his father's roofing business, he'd aged. No one should walk on a roof in the rain, especially if he is the father of three children whose mother is on disability with cancer and can't work.

The morning after the rain, I discovered a dead robin just outside of the window next to Clover's crate in the family room. I pulled some food handling gloves from a kitchen drawer, gloves I'd purchased to protect food from my Tarceva-split fingers in the winter, and went out in the yard to pick the bird up. I transferred the stiffening body to a bag I'd saved from the produce department, one with holes to let the baby Bartlett pears breathe, and then placed the bag on the other side of the yard, far from black walnut trees. Neither Clover nor the black walnut juglone could get to it. I left the top of the bag open on the off chance that the bird was not dead but stunned. Maybe she could extricate herself from the plastic and fly away.

* The text in which the Cubing Exercise appears is Writing: A Brief Edition, by Cowan and Cowan. Elizabeth Cowan is now Elizabeth Harper Neeld. Greg Cowan is deceased.

Grateful acknowledgement is made for permission to reprint the "Cubing Exercise" instructions which appear in "Juglans Nigra." Erom Writing, Brief Edition by Elizabeth Cowan, copyright [c]1983 by Scott, Foresman and Company.

Permission granted by Elizabeth Harper Neeld, PhD (also known as Elizabeth Cowan), @elizabethneeld
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Author:Newton, Dawn
Publication:The Carolina Quarterly
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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