‘The Black Walnut Tree’ was first published in Oliver’s collection, Twelve Moons, in 1979. It is usually considered to be a personal piece about the family’s financial difficulties and the decision about whether or not to sell a walnut tree. The poem is an important discussion of what’s truly valuable in life and what sacrifices one is willing or unwilling to make. ‘The Black Walnut Tree’ is a wonderful demonstration of the type of poetry Oliver is best remembered for. It focuses on themes of nature and humankind’s relationship with it.
Explore The Black Walnut Tree
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by telling the reader that she and her mother are debating selling the black walnut tree on their property. They spend time talking through the pros of this sale. It’s an old tree, likely to fall onto the house, and is often overburdened with fruit. The roots have made their way into the basement drains as well. But, there’s something that keeps them from making the sale, despite the fact that they could pay off the mortgage with the money.
The tree represents their family heritage and the handwork their ancestors did to establish a home there. The speaker has a dream about her “fathers,” who emigrated from Europe to work in Ohio. This helps solidify the fact that if they cut the tree down, they’d have to deal with unshakeable shame. So, it seems the two decide to keep the tree, at least for the time being.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘The Black Walnut Tree’ by Mary Oliver is a thirty-five-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. It is written in free verse. This means that it doesn’t conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This makes sense considering the poet was depicting a conversation/debate and was likely more interested in using normal sound speech patterns. There are also two fairly clear sections in the piece. The debate between mother and speaker plays out with reasons for and against selling the tree.
Readers might also notice examples of rhyme and rhythm, something that’s quite common even in free verse poems.The poet uses enjambment to create and control the speed at which the reader moves through the text. This technique also helps create the structure of the poem, which to some may resemble a long and sturdy tree trunk.
Oliver makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Black Walnut Tree.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines two, three, and four.
- Alliteration: the use of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “brighter” and “blood” in lines sixteen and seventeen.
- Imagery: for example, “my fathers out of Bohemia / filling the blue fields” and “fresh and generous Ohio / with leaves and vines and orchards.”
- Smilie: a comparison that uses “like” or “as” to compare two, unlike things. For example, “an edge / sharp and quick as a trowel / that wants us to dig and sow.”
My mother and I debate:
we could sell
the black walnut tree
to the lumberman,
and pay off the mortgage.
every year, and the fruit
harder to gather away.
In the first lines of ‘The Black Walnut Tree,’ the speaker begins by telling the reader that there is a debate going on. It’s occurring between the speaker, a woman whose usually considered to be Mary Oliver, and his mother. They’re trying to figure out whether they should sell the black walnut tree. They are “two women,” as line eight reveals, and they know that they need the money.
With the money, they could “pay off the mortgage.” Over the next few lines, the poet lays out why the speaker and her mother think it’s a good idea to go ahead and sell the tree. It’s inconvenient, likely to fall down anyway and smash the house, and the “leaves are getting heavier,” and the fruit is hard to gather.
It’s in these first fifteen lines that the two talk about what the problems with the tree are. They are the pros of selling the tree. But, as the following section of the poem is introduced, it becomes clear that there are far more cons to selling it. Throughout these lines, and those which follow, Oliver sues a conversational, matter-of-fact tone. The speaker and the mother are truly debating both sides, using normal, everyday language.
But something brighter than money
moves in our blood–an edge
sharp and quick as a trowel
of fresh and generous Ohio
with leaves and vines and orchards.
In the next few lines of the poem, the speaker brings in all the reasons why they shouldn’t get rid of the tree. There is something far more important than money to consider. It is “brighter” and “moves in our blood.” This “thing” is the ancestry, history, and heritage the tree represents. It is “sharp and quick as a trowel / that wants us to dig and sow.” This refers back to the history of the land and the establishment of roots. The two know that by getting rid of the tree, they would be dishonoring and forgetting the work of their ancestors.
After their talk, the speaker dreams of the past and of her “fathers” out working in the fields. The plural “fathers” represents all of her forefathers, dating back to the first relative that came to North America and then Ohio. The lines in this part of the poem are a great example of imagery. The color stands out exceptionally well.
What my mother and I both know
is that we’d crawl with shame
in the emptiness we’d made
and, month after month, the whip-
crack of the mortgage.
In the final lines of ‘The Black Walnut Tree,’ the speaker says that she and her mother know they’d be filled with shame if they got rid of the tree. It would fill up their yard and “our fathers’ backyard.” So, the tree stays for the time. It continues to move in the wind, drop fruit. These images are accompanied by the “whip- / crack” of the mortgage that still hasn’t been resolved.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Black Walnut Tree’ should also consider reading some other Mary Oliver poems. For example:
- ‘Flare’ – is a beautiful and powerful poem in which the speaker describes the nature of life and how everything on earth is connected.
- ‘Song of Autumn’ – evokes the season through the use of imagery and personification. Trees are given human characteristics, and the poet depicts how animals read natural signs.
- ‘The Son’ – explores themes of childhood, male/female, and parenting. The speaker remembers how she was unable to please her parents in her youth.
- ‘The Summer Day’ – is characteristic of much of her best writing. It focuses on nature and the purpose of life. It was published in New and Selected Poems in 1992 and asks questions like “Who made the world?”