The Black Walnut Tree
The Symbolism of a Tree in the Black Walnut Tree, a Poem by Mary Oliver
In the world people often create emotional connections with many different inanimate or animate objects. This can be seen in the poem “The Black Walnut Tree” as two women, a mother and a daughter, debate whether or not to sell their walnut tree. In the poem Mary Oliver reveals the delicate relationship that the women have with the tree using poetic devices such as analogies, symbolism, and a strong ending paradox.
With an analogy, Mary Oliver tries to convey to the readers that there is an underlying connection that the women have with the tree. They are concerned with their inability to pay their monthly mortgage but there is “something brighter” that moves “in [their] blood” that prevents them from fixing this problem. This “edge” is resembling a “trowel that wants [them] to dig and sow,” pushing them to keep the tree. This analogy shows that the tree means something more than just money to them. It is hard to pin-point what it means exactly but its roots go deep into their history.
Along with an analogy, Oliver uses symbolism to give the tree a more powerful connection to the women. In the poem, the daughter thinks about her “fathers out of Bohemia,” or ancestors, and how that if they were to sell the tree they would “crawl with shame” because they would be creating an “emptiness” in their “and [their ancestors’] backyard.” This tree represents their connection to the their past and getting rid of it would be opening a hole that could not be filled.
Then again this tree also stands for a constant struggle. Mary Oliver does a great job at hinting towards the connections that the tree and the women have, but she also uses a dramatic paradox to show the other side of their relationship. After they have decided to do nothing, Oliver describes that the tree “swings through another year of sun and leaping winds” much like a windy summer day. The tree brings “leaves and bounding fruit” that shows how they benefit from its beauty, but the mother said that the fruit is getting “harder to gather” and the leaves are heavier. Then the true effect that the tree has on them, “month after month, the whip-crack of the mortgage,” shows the price that they must pay for their connection.
By the means of poetic devices such as analogies, symbolism, and the use of a paradox, Mary oliver conveys the confused relationship that the tree represents to the two women, a mother and a daughter. Like the two sides of a coin, the tree can be a beautiful sight or it can be a terrible burden, and in the poem it is meticulously conveys to the reader.