Nothing enhances a river like a weeping willow tree planted on its banks, overhanging the water. The tree itself is watery, the wavy branches with their long leaf-sprays flowing up and over in imitation of a fountain.
The first willow tree I ever knew, though, was not by a river. My next-door neighbours when I was a child had one in their back garden.
Willows drink a lot of water from the ground around their roots, and it showed. The earth beneath the tree, within the area enclosed by the drooping branches, had no chance of growing any grass, partly, I suppose, because it got very little light but also because the willow was so thirsty for moisture that there was none to spare for any other green growth.
On the rare occasions when I played next door (the little girl of the family was younger than me – closer to my sister’s age), I enjoyed sheltering inside the waving curtain of branches, being encircled by that delicate fretwork of leaves. It felt secret and secure without being scarily closed in.
I loved to look at the tree from across the fence, too. But I was destined not to look at it for long. Late one Saturday morning I woke to the awareness that far more light than usual was coming through my thin bedroom curtains. Looking outside to work out what was happening, I was shocked to see that the weeping willow had gone. Only a stump remained. The neighbours’ lawn recovered from the loss, but I’m not sure I ever did.
We had a tree in our garden as well – an apple. After I’d left home, it too was cut down, and I never really knew why. Though not as spectacular in form as the willow, it was more useful, providing a ready-made cricket stump in summer, windfall apples to eat in the autumn and a natural climbing frame for cats all year round. And in spring time, it excelled itself in beauty with masses of pink blossom.
Perhaps as a result of those experiences, I don’t trust in the permanence of trees. The enormous yew that stands right outside my bedroom window now – as tall, as wide and probably as old as the house – I worry that it doesn’t look as healthy as it did 15 years ago. The magnolia in the garden across the road, with a wind-chime hidden in its foliage – it could fall victim to the owners’ sudden whim for a rose-bed, for all I know. The line of sycamores in the car park opposite – might they one day be sacrificed for a few more parking spaces?
There’s no room in my own tiny courtyard garden for a willow, an apple, a yew or a magnolia, but I have managed to squeeze in a small Japanese maple, in a corner bed that was once a pond. In its first few years of life, the maple’s leaves shrivelled up every summer, and one whole side of it eventually died completely. But new growth sprouted from the bottom, and now I can usually rely on it to stay alive all year round and to turn from purple to scarlet in the autumn.
The maple is my responsibility, and I shall never willingly chop it down. And in my memory of the place where I grew up, the apple and the willow are both still standing.
Willow pic: carecrit, pixabay.com