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Have you ever felt sad after seeing a chopped-down tree? What kind of value do you think a tree has? In Mary Oliver's poem, "The Black Walnut Tree," the large walnut tree in a financially struggling family's yard has monetary and sentimental value. In the poem, a mother and daughter must decide between selling the walnut tree to help pay their mortgage or letting it hover over their house as a reminder of their immigrant ancestors who were tree planting farmers. The poet, Mary Oliver (1935‐2019), intertwines the themes of family ancestry and human relationships with nature through the imagery and symbolism of a tree.
Fig 1: Black walnuts have a bold flavor, but the trees, leaves, and nuts contain a toxin that is dangerous to other plants and animals. In the poem, the black walnut tree presents threats to the speaker's home.
|"The Black Walnut Tree"|
|Poet:||Mary Oliver (1935‐2019)|
|Type of Poem:||Nature poem written in free verse|
|Poetic Devices:||Symbolism, syntax, irony, word choice/connotation, sibilance, consonance, shift in tone, analogy, juxtaposition, enjambment, alliteration, imagery, personification|
|Themes of the Poem:||Roots, ancestry, identity, the relationship between humans and nature, the power of nature|
'The Black Walnut Tree' (1979) is a poem written by the American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver (1935‐2019). 'The Black Walnut Tree' was originally published in Oliver's 1979 poetry collection entitled, Twelve Moons. Mary Oliver's poetry focuses on human relationships with nature. She was greatly inspired by long walks through diverse American landscapes.
"The Black Walnut Tree" is typically understood as an autobiographical poem through which the speaker, Mary Oliver, explores her ancestry and relates it to her connection with nature. Oliver was born in Ohio, and the poem speaks of immigrants to Ohio from Bohemia, a former Central European kingdom that is now a part of the Czech Republic. These immigrants were hardworking farmers, who lived off of the land and planted trees. Thus, the black walnut tree in the speaker's yard is a reminder of her family's origins and human dependence on the land.
Fig 2: This walnut tree is a lasting reminder of their ancestors, who were farmers.
In "The Black Walnut Tree," Mary Oliver uses simple, but vivid language to depict both the nature of the mother and daughter and the nature of the tree.
While reading 'The Black Walnut Tree', think about the connotation of the words bolded in the notes column. What do these words imply in the context of the poem?
|Line||'The Black Walnut Tree' by Mary Oliver||Notes|
|220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168.22.214.171.124.126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52.184.108.40.206.220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168.33.34.35.||My mother and I debate:we could sellthe black walnut treeto the lumberman,and pay off the mortgage.Likely some storm anywaywill churn down its dark boughs,smashing the house. We talkslowly, two women tryingin a difficult time to be wise.Roots in the cellar drains,I say, and she repliesthat the leaves are getting heavierevery year, and the fruitharder to gather away.But something brighter than moneymoves in our blood–an edgesharp and quick as a trowelthat wants us to dig and sow.So we talk, but we don't doanything. That night I dreamof my fathers out of Bohemiafilling the blue fieldsof fresh and generous Ohiowith leaves and vines and orchards.What my mother and I both knowis that we'd crawl with shamein the emptiness we'd madein our own and our fathers' backyard.So the black walnut treeswings through another yearof sun and leaping winds,of leaves and bounding fruit,and, month after month, the whip-crack of the mortgage.||debate: discussion, argument, back and forth talkchurn: stir, beat boughs: branches, limbssmashing: breaking, shattering, splinteringcellar: basementheavier: weight, large size, fatigue trowel: a small tool used to lift plants or dirt; a small tool with a flat blade used to spread plastersow: plant, scatter, disperse Bohemia: a part of Central Europe, present-day Czech Republic shame: humiliation, guilt, disgrace whip-crack: crack the whip, to make work harder through discipline|
The speaker and her mother are trying to decide whether they should have the black walnut tree in their yard chopped down. There is an air of hesitance in making this decision.
The mother and daughter present numerous reasons justifying why they should get rid of the black walnut tree. Firstly, the black walnut tree's wood is valuable and they could sell it to help them pay their mortgage (It is implied that the family needs of money). Secondly, the tree presents a possible danger, as a storm may break some of the boughs and smash the house. Thirdly, the tree's large roots are interfering with the water drainage system in the basement. Lastly, the leaves are growing larger and heavier, making the fruit more difficult to harvest each year.
Notice the order of the reasons presented to justify chopping down the tree. The validity and strength of reasoning diminish as the list goes on. Through this, Mary Oliver shows the mother's and daughter's determination to chop down the walnut tree gradually fades.
There is a shift in 'The Black Walnut Tree' halfway through the poem, as the mother and daughter begin to consider how their heritage and family history are linked to this tree. The speaker has a dream about her ancestors from Central Europe who came to Ohio as immigrants to plant vineyards and orchards. This dependence on nature and the need to foster it is in their family blood and the mother and daughter agree it would be shameful for them to chop down what originally sustained their family.
In the end, the mother and daughter allow the black walnut tree to remain. It thrives and produces an abundance of fruit, while the family continues to struggle to pay their mortgage each month.
The black walnut tree in the poem is a symbol of the speaker's deep connection to nature through her ancestry. The speaker feels obligated to allow the black walnut tree to live because her ancestors were immigrant farmers who lived off of the fertile land. She believes that the desire to care for and respect nature is in her blood and that chopping down the tree would dishonor her family's past.
"The Black Walnut Tree" is written in 35 lines as a single, block stanza. The shape of the block of text made up of short lines resembles a tree trunk. The use of enjambment, chopping up single sentences into multiple lines, evokes the chopping of the tree. The longer lines stick out, suggesting the reaching boughs of the walnut tree, which the speaker mentions could fall on the house.
The poem is a nature poem written in free verse. Mary Oliver uses free verse to allow her poetry to be guided by the flow of sounds. Oliver uses consonance, the repetition of consonant sounds, and alliteration, the repetition of the initial sounds of consecutive words. This repetition of sounds creates a flow to the reading of the poem without featuring a steady, static rhythm or meter. The use of sounds to establish the flow of the poem creates a more natural reading, which reflects the state of nature Oliver is describing.
A poem written in free verse does not adhere to any rhyme scheme or meter.
The poem, "The Black Walnut Tree" uses numerous poetic devices to present the difficulty of the speaker's decision to cut down the tree and her powerful connection to nature.
"My mother and I debate:
we could sell
the black walnut tree
to the lumberman,
and pay off the mortgage." 1
Mary Oliver uses the syntax of the first sentence of the poem to create a sense of verbal irony. Oliver uses a semicolon after the phrase "My mother and I debate:" 1 to suggest that there will be two options presented in this scenario. The word choice of debate has the connotation of opposing opinions and back and forth impassioned discussion. However, the sentence abruptly ends after the proposition to chop down the tree and sell its wood to help pay the mortgage.
This sentence creates irony because there is no debate, it is simply a statement of a presented possibility. Also, the mother and daughter appear to share the same opinions and mindset rather than presenting opposing views.
"Likely some storm anyway
will churn down its dark boughs,
smashing the house. We talk
slowly, two women trying
in a difficult time to be wise." 1
Throughout the poem, Mary Oliver uses intentional word choices that suggest the mother's and daughter's hesitance and uncertainty in regards to chopping down the tree. In this example, Oliver uses the adverbs "Likely" 1 and "anyway" 1 to frame the sixth line of the poem. This mimics how their uncertainty would come across in speech.
Mary Oliver further emphasizes this uneasiness with the use of sibilance and consonance. Sibilance is used in the repetition of the "S" sound. In lines 6 through 8, the "S" sounds create a sinister hiss, as Oliver describes how a storm may come and cause the tree's boughs to smash the house. While in lines, 9 and 10, the "S" sound creates a whispering effect, which reflects the women's discomfort in speaking about chopping down the tree. It is as if they want to keep the information discreet. The difficulty in this decision is further emphasized by the harsh, cutting consonance of the "T" sounds in lines 7 through 10, which break up the smooth reading.
Sibilance is the repetition of the "S" sound in a phrase or sentence, which creates a hissing effect.
Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in a phrase or sentence. These sounds can be at the beginning, middle, or end of a word.
Sibilance is a particular type of consonance, as "S" is a consonant. Mary Oliver uses sibilance and consonance throughout the poem. Can you identify other instances where they are used in the poem and describe their effect?
"But something brighter than money
moves in our blood–an edge
sharp and quick as a trowel
that wants us to dig and sow.
So we talk, but we don't do
In line 16, halfway through the poem, there is a shift in tone from hesitant and dismal to clear and energetic. The speaker shifts away from justifying getting rid of the tree to focusing on her innate disposition to care for nature. Oliver uses an analogy of the convictions in her blood due to her ancestry with a "sharp and quick" 1 shovel that desires to plant. Through this analogy, Oliver suggests that the inclination to care for nature is deeply ingrained in her by her ancestors. This desire is in her blood and cannot be easily shaken.
However, Mary Oliver uses juxtaposition to contrast this moment of energetic conviction with inaction, writing "So we talk, but we don't do / anything." 1 While the family's ancestors cared for nature through vigorous planting and farm work, the mother and daughter care for nature passively, by simply allowing the black walnut tree to keep living.
An analogy is a comparison between two things that serves to create deeper understanding, clarification, or explanation.
Juxtaposition is when two things are contrasted to highlight differences or changes.
Fig 3: The trowel, a sharp, pointed shovel used for gardening, reflects the pointed conviction the speaker has that caring for nature is in her blood.
"That night I dream
of my fathers out of Bohemia
filling the blue fields
of fresh and generous Ohio
with leaves and vines and orchards." 1
Mary Oliver uses enjambment and alliteration throughout the poem. In this example, she uses alliteration of the "F" sound and enjambment to move the reading of the poem in a flowing fashion. Oliver mimics the dreamlike state of the speaker as one line floats into the next to paint a picturesque scene of the abundant fields. Oliver uses this imagery of the Ohio plains to emphasize the beauty and generous nature of the land.
Enjambment is the continuation of one line of poetry into the next without any punctuation.
"So the black walnut tree
swings through another year
of sun and leaping winds" 1
Mary Oliver uses personification throughout the poem to suggest the power and life within nature. In this example, she uses the verbs "swings" 1 and "leaping" 1 to describe the movement of the tree and winds in a way that imitates a happy human. This personification of nature presents the joyousness of the tree, in being allowed to remain. It is as if the tree rejoices for its own life.
The reason the speaker and her mother are hesitant to chop down the black walnut tree is that it is a reminder of their roots and their family ancestry. As the roots of the tree are its foundation, the roots are also underneath the foundation of the family's house. This association reveals the essence of ancestry in the foundational growth and understanding of a person. The speaker and her mother expressed that the desire to plant and care for nature is in their blood because it is how their immigrant ancestors made their living in America.
In the poem, Mary Oliver suggests that the need for connection with family and one's ancestors runs stronger than the need for material things and money. The mother and daughter's identity is firmly rooted in the memory of who and where they came from. Ultimately, they would rather struggle financially than face the shame of dishonoring their "fathers" 1 and the land that sustained them (Line 22).
The poem suggests how humans are deeply linked to nature and how humans and nature are dependent on one another. Though the mother and daughter have their concerns about the inconveniences of the tree, they ultimately have a deep attachment to it. Oliver writes, "But something brighter than money moves in our blood...that wants us to dig and sow" 1 (Lines 16‐19). The family has instinctive inner compassion for nature and the need to care about it, as it provided for their family years ago.
Ultimately, Mary Oliver portrays nature as being more powerful than human fears and concerns, as the mother and daughter allow the tree to stay despite their growing financial hardships. At the end of the poem, Oliver portrays the tree thriving joyously, while the family feels the weight of the overshadowing, growing mortgage debt. Oliver suggests that nature has a greater power to thrive amidst difficult circumstances than people do.
1 Mary Oliver, 'The Black Walnut Tree,' 1979.
The meaning of 'The Black Walnut Tree' by Mary Oliver is that people have a deep connection to their ancestry and to nature.
The black walnut tree in the poem symbolizes the speaker's deep connection to nature through her ancestry.
The relationship between the black walnut tree and the family is that the family's ancestors were immigrant farmers who planted orchards in Ohio. The tree is a reminder of the family's reliance on and care for nature.
The themes of 'The Black Walnut Tree' include roots, ancestry, identity, the relationship between humans and nature, and the power of nature.
The message of 'The Black Walnut Tree' is that ancestral roots help form one's identity and priorities.
Who is the author of 'The Black Walnut Tree'?
What type of verse is 'The Black Walnut Tree' written in?
What is the relationship between the two characters speaking in the poem?
They are mother and daughter
Who is the speaker referring to when she mentions "our fathers"?
Name at least two prominent themes in 'The Black Walnut Tree.'
Roots, ancestry, identity, the relationship between humans and nature, the power of nature
What is the black walnut tree a symbol for?
The black walnut tree in the poem is a symbol of the speaker's deep connection to nature through her ancestry.
What was the occupation of the speaker's ancestors?
They were farmers
What is "Bohemia"?
A region in Central Europe where the speaker's ancestors came from
Which of the following poetic devices is not frequently used in the poem?
Halfway through the poem, there is a shift in tone from hesitant and dismal to which of the following?
clear and energetic
What happens at the end of the poem?
The tree lives on and thrives as the family continues to struggle paying their mortgage.
How would chopping down the tree help the family pay their mortgage?
The wood of the walnut tree is valuable and they could sell it
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