Mary Oliver Poetry
Heritage: Symbolism in The Black Walnut Tree
The poem “The Black Walnut Tree” by Mary Oliver poignantly dramatizes the conflict a mother and daughter face between sentiment and money. The conflict arises over the choice of whether or not to cut down the eponymous walnut tree to “pay off the mortgage” (5). However, it is revealed throughout the poem how much sentiment the mother and daughter have for the tree. As the mother and daughter debate and talk over the pros and cons of keeping the tree, their conversation shifts from the practical to the sentimental. Mary Oliver conveys the relationship between the tree and the family largely through figurative language and visual imagery aided by transitions and personification.
The title of the poem itself has abundant figurative meaning and symbolism. For example, trees represent life, growth and hope, all of which are contrasted by the dark connotations of “black.” Walnuts symbolize toughness and masculinity with their hard outer shells, which will be important as to why the mother and daughter feel such sentiment for the tree. The poem begins with the mother and daughter debating whether or not to sell “the black walnut tree / to the lumberman” (3-4). The temptation of being able to pay off the mortgage on the house is similar to making a deal with the devil. In a very off-handed tone, the mother and daughter try to justify cutting down the tree, emphasized by the diction, “Likely some storm anyway” (6). The hesitation to make a decision by the mother and daughter can be observed by comparing the connotations of “debate” and “talk” (1, 8). “Debate” has a more serious and heavy connotation as compared to the lighter connotation of “talk.”
At this point in their conversation, the arguments made by the mother and daughter for keeping or cutting the tree take on a more figurative meaning. This is highlighted by the daughter’s assertion there are “roots in the cellar drains” (11). While the figurative language engenders imagery of actual roots in the cellar, it also creates the sentimental feeling held by the daughter. The implication is the tree has deep connections with the house and is as much part of the family as the mother or daughter. The mother then contends “that the leaves are getting heavier / every year, and the fruit / harder to gather away” (13-15). Here, the conflict of sentiment versus money becomes fully established; the tree is simultaneously a part of the family and a burden that must be carried year to year.
The transitional and emphatic “But” not only serves to move the conversation along, it also marks a shift to very imagistic and figurative language (16). The mother and daughter begin to feel hope for something better that cannot be ignored. Similar to the proverb, “blood runs thicker than water,” the mother and daughter begin to realize that money is arbitrary compared to their heritage. Another transition, “so,” marks the shift in the mother and daughter’s hesitation (20). At this point, they have wordlessly made their decision. The daughter’s dream gives further insight into why the two are so attached to the walnut tree; it is a piece of their heritage cultivated by generations of the family. The pluralization of “fathers” accentuates the sentiment and the heritage personified within the tree; it is the result of the hard work of generations and generations of the daughter’s forefathers. Additionally, the symbolism of walnuts emphasizes the masculinity and toughness of the fathers who worked the land. Such powerful cementing of the tree’s sentimental value to the mother and daughter clinches their decision; the mother and daughter know that by cutting down the tree they will also be cutting down something of great meaning to their heritage.
The final transition, “So,” marks the shift to after the mother and daughter make up their minds; sentiment won out over the practicality of paying off the mortgage. Additionally, the connotation of “swings” implies the family barely gets by that year and underscores the sacrifice made to keep the tree. Furthermore, the personification of nature and the description of the bountiful harvest, the “sun and leaping winds” and the “leaves and bounding fruit,” are heavily contrasted by the “whip- / crack of the mortgage” (32-35). This contrast underlines the sacrifice made by the mother and daughter in deciding to keep the tree.
Despite the oppressive tone of the final lines, the tree remains unaffected by the mother and daughter’s hardships, as does their family heritage. In its quiet, continuing strength, the walnut tree persists as a reminder that heritage is a stronger anchor than money.
Technology and other aspects of daily life are constantly being improved, not only to better our knowledge and power but to enhance the quality of life of many, which lowers the level of discomfort that most encounter. In today’s society, most people are used to comfort and to staying inside of a “comfort zone,” therefore often never experiencing hardship or discomfort, unless required to do so. Through the use of imagery, whether brief or descriptive, Mary Oliver touches upon the subject of discomfort, its positives, and its necessity in “Starfish” and “Farm Country.” “Starfish” uses deep imagery to convey the message that we must face our fears and step out of that comfort zone in order to love and appreciate all of our world and to become less afraid; meanwhile, “Farm Country” uses brief, unpleasant imagery to show that life is not as pleasant as it seems because someone must do the uncomfortable, unpleasant work to allow him or herself, and others, to reach that final, comfortable moment or position in life.
By showing a fear of starfishes being conquered, Mary Oliver allows for the reader to see that stepping out of one’s comfort zone can lead to positive results. This conquering of a fear is shown through her imagery and descriptions of the starfishes, which she begins by comparing them to “sponges/…too many thumbs” (6-7) when she is afraid to touch them, and ends by comparing them to “flowers…flecks/ of an uncertain dream” (31-32) once she is no longer afraid. This change from negative to positive imagery shows how conquering a fear and stepping out of a comfort zone can positively impact one’s views. Mary Oliver says exactly what she wants the readers to understand, “what I wanted/ was to draw my hands back/…to be willing/ to be afraid” (8-12), in retrospect to being afraid of putting her hand in the water, followed by “but I stayed there” (13) in order to conquer her fear. This allowed for her fear to diminish, as seen when she says “it never grew easy,/ but at last I grew peaceful/…my fear diminished” (26-29), which allowed her to “[learn]/ little by little to love/ our only world” (34-36), showing that to see all of nature’s beauty and to love all of our world, one must face his or her fears. Oliver also adds a question into “Starfish” to make readers reflect upon her writing and upon the message of the poem to, hopefully, make them realize that they must go out of their comfort zones to truly accomplish something: “What good does it do/ to lie all day in the sun/ loving what is easy?” (23-25).
In “Starfish,” the use of deep, changing imagery is the main element to show the change that one goes through when facing a fear; meanwhile, in “Farm Country,” Mary Oliver also uses imagery, in a different manner, to convey the discomfort and unease that one goes through to allow someone else to have comfort and easy. Both poems have negative, unpleasant imagery, but “Starfish” ends with positive, beautiful imagery regarding the starfishes that were previously negatively described, while “Farm Country” keeps the negative imagery throughout. Along with the imagery being similar at first yet different at the end, the tone also seems to do the same through both poems. In “Starfish,” Oliver begins with a negative tone as she talks about the starfish, and begins to have a much more positive, loving tone towards the end, once she has conquering her fear. On the other hand, “Farm Country” maintains a negative tone, as it maintains the negative imagery, throughout the poem.
The unpleasant imagery used by Mary Oliver in “Farm Country” allows for the reader to see and imagine what one goes through to give someone else comfort and how some people do not see that life has hardships and discomfort. She begins the poem by talks of “sharpened… knives” (1) and a “heavy apron” (2). This imagery, which resembles that of a butcher, is followed by “maybe you think life is chicken soup, served/ in blue willow-pattern bowls” (3-4), which is followed by the unpleasant imagery of the narrator putting on boots, crossing the grass, and going into the hen house. With the imagery and description, it is clear that the narrator is going to the hen house with the knives to get chicken for that chicken soup, which must be unpleasant, or at least a less-than-comfortable experience. This likely shows that some go through unpleasant times to make sure that someone else must not go through that discomfort and gets to live a happier life. However, it is also possible that it means that some people never go through rough times and believe life is always peaceful and comfortable, without realizing that there are others who struggle and have an unpleasant experience to get to the same point in life as those who “have it easy.”
Mary Oliver uses imagery in both “Starfish” and “Country Farm” to explore the idea of comfort. In “Starfish,” she uses deep, changing imagery to show the positives of discomfort and why one should step out of their comfort zone occasionally. “Farm Country,” although still using imagery, uses it briefly and unpleasantly to show that discomfort is necessary and a part of many people’s lives.