The Old Walnut by Lauren Hudgins



I worry the last walnut tree, being over 80 years old, planted by my grandfather in the later part of his life, outliving him and living three years longer than any of its tree brethren, will finally succumb to ice damage this month. The yellow snow plows coming through, although they clear the way for my Jeep and I to buy weekly stocks of groceries and firewood, which many times is from someone else’s ice-damaged tree, further poison with salts the old walnut down at the edge of the farmhouse property, too close to the road.

Winter is the season of death. An orange male kitten, almost cat, got caught outside in the snowstorm last Monday, so foolish in its youth to venture outside in that weather, unable to find its way home, and too stupid or perhaps too brave to find shelter, perished from the cold. I discovered him as I shoveled a narrow and precarious path from my doorway to the green Jeep, the only color visible above the snow world. I would do the creature the small honor of burying him, but the ground is covered in more than three feet of snow (at least in areas where the wind doesn’t blow it around) and underneath that, there are several inches of frozen mud, too hard for my old withered arms to break through with a shovel. If he does not become food for a desperate animal, the snows and ice will entomb him until spring.

As I drink coffee in the first lights of winter morning, I look at the oak tree, deep gray and stark in winter, first covered with snow and then beset with much heavier ice when the air jumped above freezing for a day and plunged once again. I wonder if the walnut struggles against its chilly doom, attempting in some way to push back the freeze, or if its dormancy is so thorough it will die without resisting, either collapsing upon its insect-hollowed trunk or simply failing to put forth new shoots in the spring. At night in bed I imagine myself becoming too cold to move, too encumbered by heavy sleep to protect myself, to get up and turn up the heat or to get another quilt. The ice begins at my toes and fingers, traveling up my extremities, destroying skin and flesh, leaving it black and defenseless against decay, coming to my buttocks, groin, and torso, slowing my fragile heart, until it quietly flutters one last time and surrenders my body to death. I will fall asleep expecting to wake once again, urging my body, warm under the blankets, up into the cold early air, working energy and consciousness back into my being, but I will never wake, just as that walnut tree will never put forth pale green growth in a bird-chattering, rainy, and luscious spring. But so far, each morning I have risen from my bed to drink coffee and watch the tree die.

Lauren Hudgins earned her MA in Publishing and her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Portland State University in 2014. Living car-free, she bikes about the gloom of the rainy Pacific Northwest to keep her endorphins flowing. She works as a digital advertising strategist for nonprofits and progressive politicians.