Stately as princes the swans part the lilies and glide, under the willows.
The 3 young girls, arms unconfined, heads dipping & lifting, moved, twirling slowly, with as much grace as they could imagine, in, around, through the arching, earth-touching branches of the monumental weeping willow.
Are they enchanted men, soon to be free again, here, under the willows.
Such melancholy of lyric meeting with the longing of this tree. A tree whose sole desire was to reach, not skyward as most trees, but sinking low to caress the earth, a desire celebrated by these little girls, their plaintive voices lifting the plight of potentially entrapped royals, royals forever limited in swan-prisons, swan-prisons under a willow tree. What sorrow, what despondency of earth-desiring branches and forever-trapped princes, all beneath the delicately leafed arched willow limbs.
This was the power of a John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano-The First Grade Book song over me and my sisters. I don’t think any of us thought much about our piano lessons, but this song was a favorite, and we truly loved our very large willow tree. We felt honored, lucky even, to have such a tree in our yard. A tree favorite of royal swans, no less.
Weeping Willows are not domesticated. Willows need a lot of water, perhaps to support the vast number of leafy branches they sport. Willow roots are always on the move, sending out runners and shoots, looking to propagate itself, searching for more water sources. The willow anchoring the north end of our yard was classic in shape, size, branch length, and leaf. It gave definition of play space versus vegetable garden production space. It had a climbable trunk and its leafy curtain-like branches provided a favorite place for outdoor play.
In the fall, the lawn beneath the tree became blanketed with the golden-yellow, small, narrow leaves, the bare branches becoming cold, harsh, and whip-like. We didn’t know about the nifty things one could create with willow branches. My folks’ weren’t Arts & Craftsy, and I had years before meeting the willow furniture makers who lived near Trails End. The branches would be trimmed up and saved for Springtime campfires. My mom was never a fan of fall leaf-on-lawn removal. She did it because it needed to be done, but I think relieved when we were old enough to take on the task. The apple leaves, the maple leaves, even the Alder leaves were better to rake than the Willow. The small, narrow leaves danced around the rake, laughing at the thought of being carried away. Only when enough of the leafy brothers found themselves stuck in the rake tines, did the rake become effective on the lot. Despite rake detail, I still loved the tree. Keeping its romantic aura of my earlier childhood, under the branches had morphed into the perfect place to park with Nancy Drew, Charlotte Spider, or Mary Lennox. Unfortunately for the tree, it was powerless to keep control of its roots.
The greedy roots of the willow proved its undoing. Every spring, tilling took place in the adjacent vegetable garden, readying the soil for the summer bounty. As the roots spread gardenward, my tilling father would be jerked and thrown about as the tines of the tiller grappled with the willow roots. The roots often came out as the stronger opponent. The first battle tactic was to dig a trench between the lawn and the vegetable garden. This trench was 2-3 feet deep, about 6-inches wide, and probably 12 feet in length. The shovel would cut through any roots encountered, hopefully severing any further encroachment from the tree. This strategy worked for several years, the ditch remaining open to give sight to any new roots making a run for the garden. It was important to remember, when playing tag or kick the can or when simply walking to the garden, that the ditch was there, open and waiting to twist and sprain or worse. With the tree thwarted from the garden, it sent its energy in other directions, finally going too far when it began to interrupt the septic system.
Septic systems are delicate balances between anaerobic bacteria, holding tanks, gravel, and leach lines. Constructed under grassy lawns, these systems are then meant to be left alone, save for the occasional tank pumping. When well-built, septic systems can be successful for years on end. Tree roots bring that successful balance to an immediate halt. Such was the case of our greedy Weeping Willow. I am sure the septic system was first to be repaired. You don’t mess around with septic issues. However, it would have been shortly thereafter that the chainsaw took down the tree. My dad and my uncle would be swearing their non-swear words:”kiss me again”, “good night nurse”, and the very bad, “nasty pot hound”, until the tree was down, trunk clipped as close to the ground as possible. We would all have worked the clean up, piling the supple branches, stacking the rounds of trunk, doing a rake of those tiny leaves for the last time. Not having the worries of the adults, I remember lamenting, pleading that the tree not be taken, eventually finding some comfort in knowing my fall duties would be a bit easier.
As an adult, as a homeowner, as someone who lives with a septic system, I am glad my parents took action to keep us and our home safe. I still love trees, and spend many fall hours cleaning up after them, but I see them for many things now. They are beauty, they are habitat, they are shade- and life-giving, they can provide food, shelter, and warmth. We have had a few trees removed from our little 1/4-acre, but they weren’t healthy or happy. The tall evergreens around my house now are silent companions, full of promise and the same romance of my girlhood. On afternoons when my neighborhood is quiet, I sit outside and take in the sounds around me: far away traffic, that happy toddler 3 backyards over, the occasional crow, and, when I’m very lucky, the wind, that high up wind, dancing with the crowns of my companions.