Monday, January 4, 2010

Memory Monday: The Tree in Our Basement

The recent snowstorms and a trip to the basement to water my brought-in-from-the-cold potted plants brought back a memory – of a tree that once grew in our basement. It was not a tree in a pot, but a tree that actually took root and grew in the basement.

This happened not so long ago. I believe it must have been in 1996, following a huge snowfall (actually two) here in Northern Virginia; more precisely, the sprouting of the tree followed the sudden flood that was created by a hard rain and an unseasonably warm day that melted the gigantic drifts of snow.

But I should back up at this point and explain our basement. We bought our smallish, Depression-era house years ago. One of the many inconvenient quirks of the house was its shallow basement. We loved the comfort and convenience of our neighborhood and did not want to “move up,” so we put on an addition, including a full-depth basement. To access the new basement, we had a doorway cut into it from the old basement. This meant cutting through the concrete blocks that formed the old basement wall. These blocks have a hollow structure, but are filled with dirt and other fill materials; this filling was exposed when the doorway cut right through the middle of a row of blocks. We never thought much of it and never did anything to “finish off” the surface.

Then came the great winter flood of 1996. The basement, carved into marine clay on a lot which lies at the low point from a hill, is prone to flooding. Usually our four pumps can take care of it, but a power failure or very sudden and overwhelming flooding can still occasionally cause water to rise in the lower basement. Even then, it is rare that the water will go over 18 inches high so as to reach the level of the upper basement. That winter deluge was the first time it did and the first time those concrete blocks were “watered,” so to speak.

I don’t know when we noticed it, but at some point we saw that something was growing in one of the blocks. Perhaps a squirrel had gotten into the basement after the blocks were exposed and buried a seed? It didn’t seem very likely. We could only conclude that the seed must have been there since 1930, when the house was built.

And of course, some sort of instinct led us to water the thing.

After a couple of weeks the little seedling took on the appearance of a very anemic sapling which, from previous experience, we guessed was a black walnut.

A tree really shouldn’t be growing in the basement. But when we thought about it, we decided that the poor growing conditions – mainly poor lighting – would ultimately take care of the problem of the tree.

Meanwhile, we continued to water the thing.

It was just one of the usual household chores we did. “Well, I brought in the paper, fed the cats, and watered the basement tree,” one of us might recite. It had become a regular fixture of our life, though a pale one.

And it was pale, and became increasingly so, not to mention leggy and rather spindly. We considered and then rejected the option of transplanting it to the yard. We didn’t really want a black walnut tree and it most likely would have died from exposure.

So the tree survived for a surprisingly long time, perhaps a year, but not much more.

We became less conscientious about watering it, knowing that the end was not too far off, and then returned from a short vacation to find it with no leaves.

The tree’s demise did not make us sad, but perhaps just a little bit wistful at the prospect of no longer having a little “survivor” from more than 60 years ago growing in our basement.

It’s surprising what a trip to the basement can make you remember.


  1. I understand! We don't need 11 peacocks. We don't want 11 peacocks! But when the babies hatch, we are ever so protective. Unfortunately, the foxes, coyotes, and bobcats have gotten dumber --- or unbelievably, the peacocks have gotten smarter-- ya think?

  2. Greta, this is such a great memory! I love the idea of the tree being a sort of a "time capsule," a survivor from a much earlier time. The "basement tree" made me smile. Fantastic piece.


  3. How delightful and a special memory for your entire family. There was a time about 25 years back when we had a somewhat cool and moist basement. I took no mind of the conditions and stored all my precious "stuff" down there. One morning when I was in the basement doing the laundry I noticed something growing around the side of one cardboard box. It was gruesome....mushroom like and attached to the side of a cardboard box. Needless to say, upon further exploration, I found many of these "creatures" and had to throw out so many of my precious memories that were stored inside the boxes. Your piece brought my memory back to me.

  4. The basement tree-I love it : ) And black walnuts are my all time favorite tree in the world.

  5. What a sweet story! You should plant another walnut tree in your yard in it's memory! :)

  6. Wow, I had no idea this topic would evoke such responses.

    Joan - I really understand those protective instincts. What can we do? That's just the way we're made.

    Cindy - Thanks for your kind comments - isn't it strange what things stick with us?

    Linda - Speaking of disgusting fungus, we had some really awful ones in our yard this year - that's what we get for living in a swamp! Terrible that they can cause such destruction, though.

    Tipper - We were familiar with what black walnut saplings look like because a neighbor had given us one a few years before, but unfortunately I was never successful in getting that one to thrive in our yard.

    Lori - I might do that. Bet the birds would like it.

  7. I couldn't stop reading. What fun and how silly we are when it comes to logic. It is interesting that it even sprouted without sunshine. Must have been your special blessing.

  8. Great story! Thank you for sharing it. It is so easy to become absorbed in your stories. You make me smile.