English Literature
The Black Walnut Tree

The Black Walnut Tree

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The Meaning Behind 'The Black Walnut Tree' by Mary Oliver

Have you ever felt a pang of sadness upon seeing a felled tree? Do you contemplate the value of nature and its impact on our lives? In her poem 'The Black Walnut Tree', Mary Oliver explores the monetary and emotional significance of a large walnut tree in a struggling family's yard. Through vivid imagery and symbolism, Oliver delves into the themes of ancestry and the human connection to nature, as the family struggles with the decision to sell the tree for financial gain.

The black walnut tree is known for its rich flavor, but it also contains a toxin that can harm other plants and animals. In the poem, the tree poses a threat to the speaker's home, raising questions about the consequences of our actions on the environment.

'The Black Walnut Tree' was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019) and was first published in her 1979 collection, 'Twelve Moons'. Drawing inspiration from her walks through diverse American landscapes, Oliver is known for her exploration of the relationship between humans and nature.

The poem is often seen as autobiographical, with Oliver using the speaker's voice to reflect on her own ancestry and its connection to the natural world. As a native of Ohio, Oliver references her family's roots in Bohemia and the farmers who settled in Ohio and planted trees. The black walnut tree in the speaker's yard symbolizes this ancestral heritage and the human reliance on the land for sustenance.

'The Black Walnut Tree' is a testament to Oliver's ability to use simple yet powerful language to convey the interconnectedness of humans and nature. As you read, pay attention to the carefully chosen words that add depth and meaning to the speaker's reflections.

The poem follows the speaker and her mother as they grapple with the decision to chop down the black walnut tree in their yard. There is a sense of hesitation and uncertainty as they weigh their options. The reasons for cutting down the tree are presented in descending order of importance - the value of the wood, the potential danger to the house, interference with the basement's drainage system, and the difficulty of harvesting the fruit. This gradual shift reveals the mother and daughter's wavering determination to cut down the tree.

However, halfway through the poem, there is a change in perspective as the mother and daughter consider the tree's significance in relation to their heritage and family history. In a dream, the speaker sees her ancestors who immigrated to Ohio and planted vineyards and orchards. This reminder of their deep connection to nature and the need to nurture it is enough to sway their decision. Destroying what once sustained them would dishonor their family's past.

In the end, the black walnut tree remains standing, producing an abundance of fruit, while the family continues to struggle financially. The tree serves as a powerful symbol of the speaker's ancestral roots and her enduring connection to nature.

In conclusion, 'The Black Walnut Tree' is a compelling poem that highlights the intricate relationship between humans and nature. Through the central symbol of the black walnut tree, Oliver invites us to reflect on our own heritage and the importance of preserving and respecting the natural world.

The Poetic Structure and Devices Used in 'The Black Walnut Tree'

'The Black Walnut Tree' is a single, 35-line stanza that mimics the shape of a tree trunk. The use of enjambment, breaking sentences into multiple lines, mirrors the act of chopping down the tree. Longer lines represent the tree's reaching branches and its potential to fall on the house. In this free-verse nature poem, Mary Oliver utilizes consonance and alliteration to create a natural flow and reflect the state of nature being described.

The absence of a rhyme scheme or meter in this free-verse poem allows Oliver's words to flow naturally, guided by the repetition of sounds. This use of repetition adds to the organic feel of the poem, emphasizing the poet's deep connection to nature.

The Black Walnut Tree: A Poetic Analysis of Nature and Human Connection

In her poem 'The Black Walnut Tree', Mary Oliver reflects on the complexity of the human-nature relationship through the use of various poetic devices. The speaker's inner struggle to cut down the tree and her profound connection to nature are effectively conveyed through poetic techniques such as syntax, irony, word choice, sibilance, consonance, tone shifts, analogies, and juxtaposition.

  • Syntax and Irony: The poem's opening lines, "My mother and I debate: / we could sell / the black walnut tree / to the lumberman, / and pay off the mortgage", employ syntax to create a sense of verbal irony. The use of a semicolon after "My mother and I debate" suggests a discussion, but the sentence ends abruptly with a proposition to chop down the tree. This irony reveals that there is no true debate between the mother and daughter, revealing their deep bond and understanding of each other's feelings.
  • Word Choice, Sibilance, and Consonance: Throughout the poem, Oliver carefully chooses words to convey the hesitation and uncertainty of the speaker and her mother. Words like "likely" and "anyway" in line six create a sense of unease. The use of sibilance, the repetition of the "S" sound, and consonance, the repetition of consonant sounds, further emphasize the feelings of hesitation and inner turmoil. These devices can be found throughout the poem, creating a consistent tone and mood.
  • Tone Shift, Analogy, and Juxtaposition: There is a noticeable shift in tone from hesitant to energetic in line 16. The speaker moves from justifying getting rid of the tree to affirming their innate desire to care for nature. Oliver uses an analogy comparing this desire to a "sharp and quick" shovel, highlighting the speaker's strong belief and connection to nature. However, this moment of conviction is contrasted with the inaction of simply talking about it, creating a sense of juxtaposition and highlighting the complexity of the human-nature relationship.

'The Black Walnut Tree' is not just a poem about nature but also a reflection on our connection to it. Through the use of poetic devices, Oliver effectively conveys the speaker's inner turmoil and their profound connection to nature. The trowel, a symbol of nature's power and our desire to care for it, is a powerful representation of this connection. Through enjambment, alliteration, and personification, Oliver brings the speaker's dream to life and highlights the importance of our relationship with nature.

The Symbolic Significance of the Black Walnut Tree in Mary Oliver's Poem

The black walnut tree, standing tall and thriving despite financial hardships, symbolizes the resilience of nature when faced with difficult circumstances. Through her poem 'The Black Walnut Tree', Mary Oliver delves into the deep connection between humans and the natural world.

The Tree as a Representation of Family and Ancestry

The black walnut tree holds a special significance for the speaker's family, as their ancestors were farmers who planted orchards in Ohio. The tree serves as a reminder of their roots and the strong bond they share with nature, honoring their ancestors' connection to the land.

Themes Explored in 'The Black Walnut Tree'

In her poem, Oliver skillfully weaves together various themes, including the importance of ancestry, one's sense of identity, the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature, and the enduring power of the natural world.

The Message of 'The Black Walnut Tree'

The message conveyed through 'The Black Walnut Tree' highlights the essential role of ancestral roots in shaping one's individuality and values. As the tree stands tall and thriving, it serves as a powerful reminder of the enduring influence of our ancestors and the significance of cherishing and caring for the land that sustains us.

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