The breathtaking photo accompanying this blog post shows a grove of young black walnut trees growing above a lustrous carpet of wild hyacinths in late spring. But what the picture does not show makes it even more wildly beautiful. I would bet that very few readers can guess, in environmental or geographic terms, where photographer Dennis Barnes found this lovely scene. I would never have recognized the locale myself, even though seventy years ago I played many a day right there in that exact spot. You are not looking at some lush tropical jungle, or wild sanctuary in a national park, or institutional arboretum, or wildlife preserve, or refuge far from the haunts of humans. The location is a nondescript patch of Ohio farm country only a few yards away from a world of gullied corn fields. Seventy years ago it was open, park-like woodland used as sheep pasture and had been used that way for about another 70 years. The sheep kept new trees from coming in and limited the growth of wildflowers and brush. When the sheep were withdrawn, sure enough new trees and these wild hyacinths, which as children we had never seen, began to return.
At first there was nothing spectacular about this rejuvenating forest, but then Brad and Berny Billock (my brother-in-law and sister) bought the property, cleaned out much of the underbrush that had crept in and encouraged seedling black walnuts to spread out from a couple of hundred year old bearing trees. The Billocks reintroduced sheep but on a careful, rotational schedule. Then the flowers ran rampant through the grove. Botanists tell me that many wildflowers have the ability to remain dormant in the soil for years and then germinate and spring back to life when conditions are right again.
There is so much in this scene of tranquility to lift the heart. First of all the stand of black walnut trees, which are growing straight and free of side branches as you can see, is well on its way to making a valuable stand of lumber with only a bit of human labor involved. Underbrush growth is limited not only because of the rotational grazing, but also because the juglone exuded by the walnut roots is toxic to many plants that might otherwise grow here. Obviously juglone doesn’t hurt wild hyacinth nor do the sheep eat it. Furthermore, this native wildflower, like the black walnuts, is a food plant for humans. Native Americans and early white settlers gathered and ate the nuts, as we do now, and cooked the flower bulbs somewhat the way we do potatoes today. In other words, Brad and Berny have learned how to eat their cake and have it too, so to speak. The sheep have their graze and they have walnuts and if they so chose, their hyacinths bulbs for eating.
You will see this photo again in my new book, A Sanctuary of Trees, which will be out in the spring. To me this sylvan scene sings a triumphant song of hope and harmony for the future. Rather than a landscape of sad, gullied soil, which is typical of so much of the land that surrounds this little wild hyacinth sanctuary, nature can make, along with cultivated grains, a paradise of wild food to eat, lots of lumber for fuel, construction purposes, furniture and utensils, habitat for an unnumbered variety of wildlings and farm animals, and most of all, consummate beauty and everlasting life. Imagine a countryside where all the little woodlots and brushy ravines and creek sides dotting the grain fields were allowed to bloom and flourish like this. We would not need national and state parks to remind people of the harmony and beauty that nature is capable of providing us.