The Black Walnut Tree Poem by Mary Oliver Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


The autobiographical poetry “The Black Walnut Tree” by Mary Oliver was written in 1979. In order to pay off their mortgage, the speaker and her mother must determine whether to sell their walnut tree. The tree is a major nuisance, but it also honors the speaker’s ancestors, who immigrated to the United States and settled in Ohio as farmers. Although it is evident that the speaker feels that family and legacy are more important than money, she and her mother instinctively recognize that selling the tree would be an insult to their ancestors.

About the poet

American poet Mary Jane Oliver, who passed away on January 17, 2019, was born on September 10, 1935, and she was a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner. Her lifelong love of solo treks in the woods led her to draw inspiration for her work from nature rather than the human world. It is marked by an unpretentious vocabulary that conveys a true surprise at the power of natural pictures. She was recognized as the nation’s best-selling poet in 2007.


Line 1-15

My mother and I debate:

we could sell

the black walnut tree

to the lumberman,

and pay off the mortgage.

Likely some storm anyway

will churn down its dark boughs,

smashing the house. We talk

slowly, two women trying

in a difficult time to be wise.

Roots in the cellar drains,

I say, and she replies

that the leaves are getting heavier

every year, and the fruit

harder to gather away.

Mary Oliver and her mother argue in “The Black Walnut Tree” about whether or not to sell the black walnut tree. Oliver notes that the tree is unwieldy, prone to falling over and smashing the home and that the leaves are growing thicker and harder to pick fruit from. The speaker and her mother discuss the benefits of selling the tree in the poem’s first fifteen lines, but as the poem goes on, it becomes evident that there are much more drawbacks. In order to convey that the speaker and her mother are genuinely discussing both sides of the argument while utilizing ordinary language, Oliver utilizes a conversational, matter-of-fact tone throughout the poem.

Line 16-25

But something brighter than money

moves in our blood–an edge

sharp and quick as a trowel

that wants us to dig and sow.

So we talk, but we don't do

anything. That night I dream

of my fathers out of Bohemia

filling the blue fields

of fresh and generous Ohio

with leaves and vines and orchards.

The speaker of the poem offers arguments against cutting down the tree, saying that it is “brighter and moves in our blood” than money. The tree is “sharp and quick as a trowel” and encourages them to seed and dig; it stands in for their genealogy, history, and legacy. After their discussion, the speaker has a dream in which she sees her “fathers”—who are actually all of her forefathers—working in the fields, starting with the first relative who immigrated to North America and moving on to Ohio. This section of the poem contains some excellent examples of imagery, with the color really popping out.

Line 26-35

What my mother and I both know

is that we'd crawl with shame

in the emptiness we'd made

in our own and our fathers' backyard.

So the black walnut tree

swings through another year

of sun and leaping winds,

of leaves and bounding fruit,

and, month after month, the whip-

crack of the mortgage.

These lines express the speaker’s and their mother’s feelings of guilt and responsibility. “Crawl with shame” refers to a profound sense of regret and guilt. They are ashamed of the emptiness they have left in their own backyard, which stands in for the lack of something fulfilling or significant in their life. The reference to the black walnut tree swinging through another year refers to the passing of time and the changing of the seasons, as seen in the blossoming of its leaves and fruits. But the phrase “the whip-crack of the mortgage” adds a strikingly different dimension of debt and difficulty. It implies that they are still having trouble making their mortgage payments, which makes their life more difficult and stressful.