I chose my steps carefully around the furrowed trunk of the black walnut. Ripening husks littered the floor of the Illinois Arboretum nut grove, greasy black flesh waiting to stain a poorly placed shoe.
I closed my eyes and took in the earthy lemon scent that filled the air, a fermented sweetness that fell on the good side of decay.
I remembered the time I was hiking with scouts, and surprised them by finding a just-fallen fruit along the trail. Many of them had enjoyed walnuts in chocolate chip cookies, but wouldn’t believe that the green orb in my hand was one and the same. In a moment of lost discretion, I plunged my finger into the flesh, digging towards the hull that would prove to them a walnut grew inside.
Three weeks later, my fingers lost the dark hue of the juglone that stained my hands.
My thoughts drifted from that moment to my grandparents’ driveway, walnut husks strewn all about, crushed by the cars that drove in and out. These walnuts were my grandfather’s prized possessions, a natural candy handed out every Halloween.
If you’ve ever eaten a fresh walnut, you might understand my grandfather’s obsession. The taste is unlike the practically archaic nuts you find in the modern grocery store. A fresh walnut almost warms the mouth with its delicious pungency.
But these walnuts did not come to the lazy. My mother remembers her father carefully removing the husks, then drying the nuts out of reach of the squirrels who shared his walnut passion. Once the nuts were dry, after a few days, the cracking and hulling began. My grandfather and a hammer, man vs. walnuts. My aunt described both sides of this battle as obstinate.
My grandfather and I had a rough go of it later in life. He passed not knowing the man I had become, nor did he meet his great grandson until Alzheimer’s had stripped him of his faculties. But as I stood beneath the tree, my hand leaning against its rough bark, I remembered one of his lessons.
The good things in life are worth the work. In fact, they’re good because of the work.
How many great things in life do we pass, because we’re not willing to put in the effort? We sidestep them for fear of soiling ourselves with the exhaust of hard work. We don’t find the wonder within each other, because getting there is messy and often leaves our hearts stained.
My grandfather was right.
A fresh walnut does taste better, but it’s the work that makes it truly precious.