The happy end of tragic story that started back in 1953

This story goes back to 1953, a year of radical changes in the Soviet Union. Its roots are to be found in Aleksandrovka, a small Russian village lost in the forests of central Russia in Samara Region. The New Year was being celebrating at the 7-form school located in the homestead of a former Russian landowner. The holiday reached its peak when presents were handed to first-form pupils and I was among them. It should be said that it was the first festivity when we were handed presents after the devastating war and the dreadful famine. Our teacher lined us up on the stage and handed us presents wrapped up in grey paper whose content we started to eagerly examine.

Back then, presents were seen as something divine, round and square colourful candies, some five rye spice cakes, two small apples, a quarter of bread and five nuts at the bottom of the parcel.

At that age I already knew what nuts were. Our neighbour, an old man named Alexandru, uncle Sandu (as he asked us to call him), a Moldovan whom the fate brought on our land, had told us about a wonderful country named Moldova where such fruits used to grow everywhere.

Being aware of the school “brotherhood”, I knew that the present belonged to me only until the end of the festivity, when the elder pupils would divide our presents among them. Therefore, without being noticed, I took the priceless nuts out of the bag and hushed them up in my shirt.

The happy end of tragic story that started back in 1953 - story of fermer Nicolai Kiktenko (Audio)

Immediately after the festivity, I dashed my way through snow drifts to reach uncle Sandu’s house. Being a good-natured person he was not upset with my late visit. He carefully examined the nuts but was rather sceptic at my idea of planting a nut orchard in spring, saying that it was too cold for them since not even oaks survived in a frost of minus 40 degrees.

Notwithstanding this, in February, when my mother was sowing cabbage in a box situated on a window stool, I put a box with nuts next to it. The nuts were stubbornly refusing to germinate. My mother’s box was full of green cabbage, whereas in my box, there was no sign of life. I fell into despair and started getting poorer results at school. At night, I used to take the box with me near the stove  and when my mother lost all her patience she promised to throw them outside in the frost, should I bring one more 3 [mark equivalent to C] at home. But one fine day, in early May, when I lost all my hopes, three small but strong sprouts of a heavenly beauty appeared in the box.

I was jumping for joy. The nut sprouts were growing and developing well and the neighbours started passing by increasingly often to have a look at the unseen miracle. After having a couple of glasses of home brew so skilfully made by my mother, old people were saying that that was nothing but an adventure without any future, but uncle Sandu stated that I was going to be an agronomist.  In late May, with guidance from uncle Sandu, I brought a lot of forest soil in front of our house which was the best warmed by sun, set up a garden-bed and planted the nut seedlings.

The transplanting went very well without any losses and in autumn the nut trees where about half a metre tall as if they were answering to our endless love and care. To survive the winter, we covered the walnut trees with fir tree branches and wood shredding and not even a day passed without me thinking of whether they will manage to live through the Russian killing frost.

As soon as the weather got warmer in spring, I took away the branches and wood shredding and the walnut trees started to quickly grow so that in autumn they were higher than me.

In the autumn of 1955 I already knew how to prepare for winter. The “sarcophagus” over the walnut trees was safe and reliable, the walnut trees lived through winter without problems and started growing again in spring.

The summer of 1956 was my last summer in Russia as my family moved to Moldova. My mother was wrapping up things of utmost importance, whereas I was thinking of how to wrap up my dear little trees. I wanted by no means to leave without them. But I failed to persuade my father who said firmly that we had room only for things of utmost importance. It was decided that the trees would remain and be protected by uncle Alexandru, who reassured me that he would take good care of them and that walnut trees were growing everywhere in Moldova.

We left in an October morning. Rare flakes of snow were predicting the approach of winter. I took farewell of my friends and of my trees that were now over 1.5 metres tall. Under the sound of our childish screams, the car took off. My trees were shaking in the cold wind, waving their branches as if they were saying good bye.
The fate wanted that my first walnut trees remain far away in Russia, in the little village Aleksandrovka, Samara Region, but I preserved my love and loyalty to them my whole life.

  

25 years later

In Moldova, we settled down in Riscani, where I graduated from a 7-form school, after which I was matriculated at a Tiraspol-based vocational school and as uncle Sandu  foretold, I became an agronomist. All these years, I could not forget that gloomy October day of 1956 when my orphan walnut trees waved their branches to say good bye to me.

In 1974, when I was studying at the Chisinau-based agricultural institute, I met a young scientist, PhD Turcanu Ivan, who helped me put my mystic love for walnut trees into an earthly scientific frame.  Back then, just like now, research was short of finances. Therefore in 1977 when I became the head of the Frunze kolkhoz, the first thing I did was to sign an agreement with the pomiculture institute on scientific support for the walnut nursery that was being created in the kolkhoz. We used a technological process based on an winter grafting method developed by Ivan Turcanu.

But the fate prepared another surprise for me. I was sent from that kolkhoz, which finally managed to get on its feet, to the Boris Glavan kolkhoz in the village Starii Albinet. It was meaningless to oppose, my only condition was that the walnut tree programme shall be transferred to that kolkhoz and they accepted. Unlike in 1956, now I took my “corbeille” with me, layered boxes with grafted walnut sprigs, which in May 1980 were planted into a collection orchard in the village Starii Albinet. It goes without saying that all these years, despite the fact that I was very busy, I kept on looking for new heavy-productive varieties of walnut trees. I used to choose cuttings and grow and plant seedlings in treelines as it was easy to compare them with others and draw conclusions about their advantages.

In September 1980, the need aroused to repair a road leading to the village Musteata and to create two man-made lakes. Applying the well-known “kolkhoz diplomacy”, I decided to borrow the needed machines from a brigade constructing the road Brest-Odessa. So, in late September, I left for the construction site to look for a Belarusian site supervisor, with whom, as people said, it was possible to come to terms. Near the village Marandeni, I was told that Stepan Mantsevich could be found on the highway leading to the village Chiscareni, where he, jointly with the head of the village council and a police officer were trying to persuade some stubborn old man who opposed construction works on his vine yard. The road there was very difficult, even the unpretentious UAZ [Soviet car] had troubles dealing with the deep tracks left by road scrapers. The scope of the construction was very impressive, huge hills were demolished; deep valleys were filled with construction materials, as if a fairytale giant had a lark there. The work was humming everywhere. I already started to regret that idea, when somewhere far away right on the highway I saw a majestic walnut tree of an unusual shape that was standing on a piece of untouched land, where a toll silver-haired old man was leaning on a walking stick in the middle of a well-tilled vine yard, near a large hovel and listening to the head of the village council. The walnut tree drew my entire attention. It was a giant covering a quarter of a parcel of 0.26 hectares. Its leafage was covering the whole parcel which was about 25 to 27 meters in width. The shape of the leafage was not spherical or pyramidic as usual but square-angled. Long and flexible branches were hanging down and swaging and trembling in the mild autumn wind as if it were a weeping willow.  The leaves were unusually long, with a few bright green lobules that were shining as if they were varnished. Under the tree there were several piles of egg-shaped nuts of a fairly large size and an unusual white colour as if powdered with flour. Mechanically I squeezed a nut and what I saw in my palm was an excellent, full-bodied kernel of light straw color. It seemed that the tree had no disadvantages, the fleshy shells of nuts were “blooming” as a lily, releasing mature and clean walnuts that were falling on the ground

Silently, I was walking back and forth measuring the size of the crown, counting the piles of nuts and estimating the crop. Next to me, the members of the commission were mumbling, in an attempt to persuade the old man, whereas my brain was fervently mulling over the idea that that was the tree of my dreams and it was doomed! The giant had stood there for at least two hundred years, had outlived more than a dozen of masters, and at that moment they were deciding how many hours or days he still had.

I approached the men. Uncle Tofan or Trifan, as a local police officer was naming him, was arguing that his father had sold nuts from that tree in Moscow during the reign of the Russian tsar Nikolay, whereas under the Romanian rule, dealers used to quarrel over his nuts near the Romanian village Bivolari. Imagine what I was feeling: the tree was to be hewed because constructing the road was a state matter and the old man was unable to stop the bulldozer. Nevertheless I did not want to give up my dream.

I had a face-to-face talk with the construction site supervisor to ask him to postpone hewing the tree until the sprigs were suitable for grafting. He looked at me as a doctor to a patient, sighed and wondered whether the old man was not enough of a trouble. Yet, he agreed to a postponement until early November. Returning to the men who were still disputing, I said that the walnut tree was truly unique, that I had seen nothing like that before and that it was a crime and a huge mismanagement to chop it down. I also promised to plant its seedlings.

Back then, kolkhoz chairmen had quite a reputation and I persuaded the commission to postpone cutting down the tree. Yet, the old man kept on saying that he will lay down in front of the bulldozer to prevent them from hewing the tree. The driver drove to the village to buy something from a local shop. The old man, after having a thought, invited us to his hovel, brought a decanter of young wine, half a loaf of home-made bread, cut an water melon, brought a bucket of nuts from the disputed tree and wished us good health and good appetite. The true Moldovan hospitality had its say. The simple edibles of the old man turned out to be so tasty that the stuff bought from the shop went unnoticed. We exchanged phone numbers with the construction site supervisor, agreed to cooperate and left.

The first test

The harvesting campaign in 1980 was extremely difficult, therefore I forgot about the accidental meeting at the road construction site until my secretary informed me about a strange phone call about some walnut tree that had been chopped down. I immediately remembered two-month-old events, the unique walnut tree that was doomed to be cut, his loyal guardian and my forgotten promises. Leaving aside everything I was busy with, I headed there. What I saw shocked me. Instead of the old man’s vine yard, there was a slope leading to the road, whereas the walnut tree, to be more precise all that was left of it, had been dragged by a bulldozer outside the construction site. The giant branches had been broken, the trilateral trunk was absolutely rindless, it was obvious that the giant held on to the last. Only after I approached, I noticed uncle Trifan, he was sitting on the ground, leaning against the trunk of the disfigured tree, and he was drunk.

When he saw me, he waved at me as if he wanted to say that I came too late. They uprooted it the day before and gave it to him for wood, but he could not cut it. I inspected the giant.  The drizzling November rain did not let the sprigs dry up, and powerful skeletal branches inside the crown kept safe some sprigs suitable for grafting. I cut them carefully and wrapped them up in a wet burlap. Uncle Trifan stood up, caressed the sprigs and said: “God help you.” 

As the car took off, he raised a hand to say good bye or maybe to bless me and stood there until UAZ, making its way along the bumpy road, crawled around the corner. This is how I remember him. On my way to Albinet, I realized that I could have missed the last chance to preserve a unique tree and I vowed to myself to keep a close eye on the fate of Trifan’s tree, this is how I have called that tree ever since. I put the priceless sprigs in the fridge at home, despite my wife’s discontent. It was the safest way possible, I did not want to take any more risks.

The sprigs lived through the winter and in March were grafted, but all that had happened to them in November told on their quality, therefore only three out of 47 grafted sprigs survived. In the spring of 1981, the sprigs were planted in a collection orchard situated near the management headquarters of the kolkhoz.  They took roots and again my duties as chairman pushed the walnut trees to the sidelines.

My next meeting with the walnut trees took place in September 1987 and it can be said that it was their initiative. This is how it happened. The kolkhoz management was to hold a meeting at 15:00. As I had 30 minutes of spare time I was hurrying home through the orchard for a bite. The wind was blowing and the branches of three trees standing in a row were shaking somehow unusually. I slowed down and stopped as if struck by thunder. A similar windy day of September 1980 sparked in my memory and I remembered the doomed giant with his unusually long and flexible branches hanging down and swaging as if asking for help, as well as his loyal defender, uncle Trifan.

The branches of the 7-year old triplets were abounding in nuts, bending under their weight. The young trees looked somehow unusual, the abundance of fruits inside the crown was astonishing and I could not realize why because back then I had no idea of lateral fruit-bearing. By their colour, shape, quality and taste, the nuts remembered me the old man’s edibles on that memorable day. I forgot about my lunch, stuffed walnuts into my pockets, thinking of how glad uncle Trifan would be to see that his favorite tree revived thrice instead of being left to oblivion. I left to look for him. But a shepherd pasturing a small herd of sheep on the venue of the former vine yard, gave me the sad news: uncle Trifan died in the same very year soon after his favourite was chopped down.

Frost test

So, the joy brought by the three successors of the unique walnut tree was shadowed by the news about the death of uncle Trifan. I have lived with a bitter feeling of guilt in my soul ever since.

Meanwhile, the country went through a period of changes, known as perestroika. I no longer was an influential kolkhoz head. Therefore, together with four like-minded people I leased five hectares of land in the village Rediu de Sus and started a new life.  I had to give up all my research activity and experiments and my dear walnut trees remained orphan once again. I was visiting them now and then and year on year I was increasingly surprised by their abundant annual harvest and the lack of any signs of disease. It continued this way until 1996, when Moldova’s walnut trees were put to the test of a truly Siberian frost. Temperatures decreased to minus 34 degrees and even more three nights in a row. In the spring, the collection orchard looked pitifully. The Bulgarian sort Sheynovo and the Uzbek sort Ideal did not survive the frost. The collection of Turcanu Ivan lived better through the winter. The sorts Chisinau, Corjeuti, Schinoasa and Costiujeni were damaged only partly and even had walnuts here and there. Imagine how worried I was when I was heading towards the triplets. I saw their 200-year-old predecessor which for centuries had survived even harsher experiences; nevertheless the view of the frozen orchard added no optimism at all.  I espied them rather easily as the branches of the frozen trees did not close their view. On the contrary, Trifan’s walnut trees looked incredibly healthy, without a sign of freezing.

Troubles came unexpectedly. The new land leader did not want to work and restore the damaged orchard and decided to divide and give it to peasants. My attempts to stop this lawlessness proved futile. I found out to whom the parcel on which my three walnut trees were growing was given and I agreed with them, for a price of course, that they wouldn’t uproot them by late July when sprigs would be ready for summer grafting. Initially, the plan worked, but in late May on that 10-hectare surface only my three walnut trees were still there, impeding the processing of the farmland.

 

Third but not last test

The leader who took the farmland had nothing in common with my “walnut feelings”, he put pressure on peasants and one morning in early July only one walnut tree remained in the field.  It was meaningless to try and postpone, just like in 1980, the life faced me with the Shakespearian choice – to be or not to be. I cut a pile of sprigs and grafted them the same day on a dozen of five-year-old walnut trees along a road near my house in Rediul de Sus. As I was an experienced specialist, I was aware that I had slim chances to succeed, the cuttings were green and friable, but there was no other way out. In 20 days, my most pessimistic assumptions came true, only three out of 50 grafted sprigs survived and they started growing immediately. By autumn they were 20 centimetres tall but were not mature enough. In winter I covered them in rags and polyethylene, but in spring only one of them started growing, the other two died. The grafted sprig that survived used the force of a five-year-old tree to grow beautifully and in two years I had the first harvest from it.

Enlightenment

A wise man said if you want to hide something then put it so that everybody sees it. If you had patience and time to read my confessions, then you won’t doubt that I had thoroughly studied the features of uncle Trifan’s walnut tree, but its main feature went unseen. I realized what it was in late November 2009 when I was getting ready for the National Conference of Nut Growers. Searching the Internet, I found a description of the American walnut PAYNE, the first officially registered sort with lateral fruit-bearing, the successor of LARA, FERNOR, FERZHAN and FERNET. After reading the very first sentences, I realized that the Trifan walnut tree was very much alike them and understood why it looked so unusual. The lateral fruit-bearing in IUGLANS REGIA trees is very rare as they are known for their terminal fruit-bearing. It becomes obvious why it offers much more crops.  Uncle Trifan’s fanatic loyalty to the tree becomes clear too. It fed generations of his predecessors as it easily coped with temperatures of minus 30 degrees and had rich harvest in extreme conditions, in years with poor crops, when there were few walnuts and hence were very expensive.

What is the conclusion of this intricate story? For Good to triumph, it is necessary to fight tirelessly! History keeps the memory of outstanding walnut trees, which, unfortunately, were irretrievably lost.  Our predecessors were able to create seven wonders of the world, the majestic pyramids and mysterious Stouhenzh but, unfortunately, they were unable to graft walnut trees. Thus the Moldovan chronicles of the 16th century mention the walnut tree of Stefan cel Mare [great Moldovan medieval ruler], which was growing in IasiCounty. According to the chronicle writer, the great ruler, during his travels across Moldova enjoyed resting under that tree. It was so big that his whole squad, which means over 180 riders, easily found a place under its leafage!!!

There were much more chances to lose the Trifan tree than to preserve it. But in critical moments, Providence gave us a CHANCE and thanks God, we did not miss it. Nowadays we can proudly say that it is the first Moldovan walnut tree with lateral fruit-bearing. In the autumn of 2009, Ivan Turcanu personally examined and blessed it: “Sprig as much as possible and spread in all the districts!”

This is the happy end of this tragic story that started back in 1953.

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