Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Walnut Sabbatical

Our unusual title is suggested by the treasured black walnut tree in our northwest Illinois front yard. Over the years this tree has provided our family multiple levels of enjoyment. Apart from its provision of tasty treats when we take the time to break the tough shells we’ve saved, our beautifully shaped tree has granted additional joy to our grandchildren. They collected their penny-a-nut bounty last year when its production far outpaced their grandfather’s collecting energy level. Our walnut bounty offer expired during autumn 2012 along with its mathematical lessons.

The tree has provided rest stops for our treasured avian friends, observation frames for us, and late season work for energetic neighborhood squirrels. They don’t seem to mind their autumnal collecting and transplanting assignments. Walnut seedlings sprout abundantly around our house when late spring arrives. Among other agricultural lessons, squirrel-buried walnuts illustrate a tutorial from Christ’s lesson on seed planting in John 12:24.

More fascinating is the pattern of production from this tree in the decade we’ve lived here. Some literature claims black walnuts produce more plentiful crops two years of every five. For several years my informal observations seemed roughly to confirm this formula. Then came the summer of 2012. The driest mid-west spring and summer in decades came replete with excessive heat. Our deep-rooted tree did not seem to mind. This medium-sized tree produced an astonishing 8000 high quality nuts. Spurred by curiosity my investigations revealed that in 2005 the tree had produced 4000 satisfying my nut-cracking addiction for several years thereafter.

The 2005/2012 surfeit of production conforms to the findings of several sources claiming, as did one lengthy web article, “Black walnut trees produce nuts in six, seven, and eight year cycles. It’s impossible to know which cycle the trees are in, but it can be observed that about 7-8 years following a peak year a given tree will have relatively poor nut production, well below its normal average.” For our front yard specimen, this is an understatement. Not one walnut has been produced this year even though we have had normal temperatures and above average rainfall. A smaller tree on our property seems to produce walnuts every year, as if the plant has a mind of its own. According to my recollections, average production from our tree amounted to only a few hundred nuts during our other nine years of residence.

Our tree’s natural “intelligence” reflects an ancient tradition. For thousands of years the world’s agriculturalists have applied the lessons of this intelligence. Land lying fallow or unused every seven years is a practice with origins in Sabbath laws given to the Israelites by the Lord in Exodus 23:11. There were benefits from giving the land rest from its normal cycles including improvements in long-term productivity. Regardless of the mathematical unpredictability of the pattern, some plants benefit from intermittent rest cycles in order to maximize production in non-rest years.

So it is with us. Jesus urged his disciples to “Come apart and rest a little while.” (Mark 6:31) Jesus and the disciples were being thronged to the point of not even having time to eat. The principle of rest from the regular cycle of labor is analogous to a “personal fallow,” often with considerable benefit to those who avail themselves of the rest periods. Academic and ministerial personnel often increase their professional effectiveness by making use of programmed “down” time. Not always is constant intense work a formula for increased productivity. C. H. Spurgeon, 19th century preacher stated, “In the long run, we do more by sometimes doing less.”

Appropriate lessons can be drawn from the world of nature, not only to help us praise and worship the Creator, but also to help us cope with everyday challenges. Plant life has adaptations from which we may learn significant lessons. Our black walnut tree has supplied more nut treats during 2012 than I will use for several years to come even though we will harvest no walnuts in 2013.