I keep a walnut on my desk. It is no ordinary walnut; it is an extraordinary walnut. What makes it extraordinary is the tree that birthed it, the man who planted that tree, and what that tree represents.
130 years ago, the Broderick District of West Sacramento was a vast open space of fertile farmland and healthy orchards. My great-grandfather, Christopher Columbus Parkinson arrived here around 1879 from Courtland, Kansas. He brought with him his wife Mary Elizabeth and sons Charles, Asa, George, Herbert and Wilber. Their first daughter, Laura, would be born here in 1879.
Chris’ reasons for his relocation to California have been lost to the winds of time. He was a farmer in Kansas, and he was a farmer in California. Maybe all the stories about California’s fertile soil and infrequent snow drew him west. Maybe it had something to do with the expansion of the railroad and the job opportunities it would present to his sons. Maybe it had nothing to do with any of that. Like I said, the winds of time...
The Parkinsons were a hardy bunch, the fourth generation born in America. The Scots-Irish-English blood of their immigrant ancestor Robert Parkinson ran through their veins. Robert was a strong man, highly intelligent and scholarly. He could read and write, and he was fluent in Latin. A dedicated Presbyterian, he left Ireland to escape religious persecution and the Anti-Scots sentiment raging through Northern Ireland at the time. His son William was the first of his sons to be born in America. William begat Moses, and Moses begat Christopher Columbus Parkinson. William began as a farmer and became a carpenter; Moses stayed with farming. Moses taught his son Chris how to farm.
Therefore, it was not surprising that Chris’ sons developed a love for the soil and all things of the soil. Asa, in particular, found the gifts of the earth fascinating. When he was barely into his teens, he decided to try a little experiment with a walnut he found in a field. He wondered how this walnut would fare grown only with water, a rusty iron nail, and no soil. He put the walnut in a glass of water, set it on a sunny windowsill and tended to it as needed.
To everyone’s surprise, the walnut sprouted roots, and then it sprouted shoots. Eventually, it needed a bigger glass, then a jar, and then a bigger jar. Nothing but iron-nourished water, and the walnut became a tree. There is no one to tell us if Asa took the tree-in-a-jar with him when he left home to make his own way in the small world of Yolo County. It is more likely, and more practical, that he left his tree in the care of a trusted younger sibling who remained in the family home on the family farm. Given the fact that most of his brothers left home for extended periods as general laborers, it’s probable that his sisters or his parents cared for the tree in his absence. No matter who cared for it, the tree continued to grow strong and healthy in the big jar of water.
The years and the decades flew by. Asa wore many hats during those years. As time passed, his body remained strong, but his health began to decline. He was now an old man, and he needed to retire. In those days, Social Security was in its infancy, and Asa had no retirement plan and no nest egg saved for his old age. Additionally, his failing health forbid him to live alone any longer. He needed a place with family, but he also longed to maintain his privacy.
His youngest brother William provided him the ideal arrangement. Someone set up a trailer in the rear of William’s home on C Street in Broderick, and Asa lived there. Here he was not isolated, and yet he had the privacy he needed.
As for the tree-in-a-jar, it is unclear if William had been keeping it all those years, or if Asa had reclaimed it at some time and kept it with him. However, the brothers planted the tree-in-a-jar in William’s yard, and the tree continued to grow.
And grow, and grow, and grow...
It’s trunk is very, very thick, and its branches curl and twist wildly toward the sky. It is a massive, strange looking tree. You would not know at first glance that it is a walnut tree; you would only know it by the blanket of walnuts at its base.
If it had a voice, Asa’s tree could tell you about the children who grew up with it, and the children of those children who climbed its branches. It would share many fond reminiscences of a little girl named Dorothy who played on the swing it supported just for her. Asa’s tree would speak in a loving voice about her for it witnessed her musings, dreams, laughter and tears.
Asa’s tree would tell you about all the Parkinsons and all their friends. It would tell you about the horseshoe games, BBQs and holiday gatherings. It would laugh about the time William painted the house yellow and green, and how the colors confused the birds that perched in its branches. Its voice would break just a little as it told you about the moment it saw Asa near death being taken away.
It still misses Asa.
The only thing it would not tell you are secrets, anyone’s secrets. Secrets are sacred to trees.
Asa’s tree has many roots that are deep, deep, in the soil. It has survived every storm, natural and man-made. It reaches persistently into the sky, as if reaching for the departed souls who have since flown away.
Yet, the spirits of two brothers dwell within it. Their spirits permeate every branch, every twig. Their residual energy nourishes the roots, roots that are deep, strong and very much alive. It is a spirit energy restored to its original form, pure, bright, and full of promise.
Some day in the distant future, someone else will marvel at this tree. Someone will wonder at its massive trunk and twisted branches. They will say it is trying to reach through the heavens. They will say it is trying to reach into Heaven itself in search of someone.
Perhaps they will feel the spirits of two men. Perhaps they will wonder why the tree makes them think of a sapling in a glass of water.
I keep a walnut on my desk, a walnut from Asa’s tree. It reminds me that we can persevere, no matter how fierce the storms of life. It reminds me that, although we all leave this earth, we leave a legacy behind. It reminds me that, although our bodies die, our spirits live on.
Rest in peace, Asa.
Thanks for the gift of your life and your tree.
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