Sing Willow, Willow, Wail-ee-oh!
WHEN I came to live in this part of Glasgow 12 years ago, the ground at the bottom of the hill below the house, by a then-brand-new motorway, was what I believe they call in the road-making business thrown back. Or over. Disturbed, anyway. The earth movers had been hard at it, and the land was laid waste: a long, wide bank of bare dirt.
But now it has grace.
And much of that grace, which also involves a kind of grassy, swampy, shrubby wildness, is due to one kind of tree.
Willows abound here, lovers of damp that they are. Nobody has planted them, but the wind has unknowingly lifted and deposited the seeds. None of these willows are big trees. None have sturdy trunks. They are springing, pliant, lithe branch-things, a little profligate perhaps, carefree, crowding each other.
Willows are not terribly serious like solemn oaks. They are not hard and slow and determined like beeches. They aren't stiff-sticked and thorn-spiked like hawthorn. They are quick-stemmed and impetuous; adolescent, really.
Which is why I can't understand the peculiar reputation that the symbolmakers and poets of the ages have so insensitively bestowed upon this entirely appealing tree in all its various forms.
Willows do not deserve their reputation. It's an old reputation - that the willow signifies sadness, lost love, melancholy. But why? Is it the sound of the name? Certainly it can be said or sung with all the floppy exhalation of a deep sigh, and for centuries it has been misappropriated in such romantically weepy and languishing ways that lyricists instantly think of it when reaching for apt expression of bitter tears and somber moods.
Yet there really isn't anything inherently morose about the sound that this name makes. It can be said softly and dreamily with very little lip contortion, your natural smile unbroken. It can even be pronounced with sudden brightness. It can be enunciated with perfect practicality of tone.
The label of one of the most graceful forms of willow - the "weeping willow" - hardly helps. The analogy is presumably with descending tears, with pre-Raphaelite drooping postures, even with the long, unkempt tresses of maidens feeling terribly poignant about themselves.
But I think short hair denotes misery much more affectingly, and the weeping willow's stems and leaves as they cascade over a river bank and trail in the minnowy shallows denote all that is right with the world, particularly on a quiet summer's evening when you are lazing in a punt. Why isn't this willow called the cheery willow or the tranquil willow?
I realize, of course, that it is a matter of swimming against the current trying to rehabilitate the willow's reputation. The tide of history is against it. Shakespeare - above all Shakespeare - is against it. He drowned Ophelia not just underneath a willow that grew "aslant a brook" but actually made the wretched tree responsible for her soggy end. She tried to hang her "coronet weeds" - the garlands of wild flowers she is carrying - on its "pendent boughs," but "... an envious sliver broke,/ When down her weedy trophies and herself/ Fell in the weeping brook...."
And in another of Shakespeare's tragedies, "Othello," he has Desdemona, unjustly accused by her husband the Moor of infidelity, sing "a song of `willow.' " Among its more blithesome moments are such lines as:
The fresh streams ran by her, and
murmur'd her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and
soften'd the stones;
Sing willow, willow, willow....
This sort of thing proved altogether too much for the mischievousness of Gilbert and his partner-in-crime, Sullivan, who took one or two rather well-aimed swipes at the willow cliche. One of their songs makes much exaggerated sport at its expense by reiterating too often the refrain "willow, willow, wail-ee-oh." The only problem is that both writer and composer did such a very good job that this particular song is actually rather touching and beautiful.
Their most famous willow song, however, leaves no room for doubt. It is maudlin and mocking. It is a song of unrequited love, all right, but it is sung quite cynically and with dubious motives in mind. It successfully makes fun of the idiom. It is, of course, "Titwillow":
On a tree by a river a little tomtit
Sang willow, titwillow, titwillow.
And I said to him dickybird why do
Singing willow, titwillow, titwillow. `Is it weakness of intellect, birdy?'
I cried`Or a rather tough worm in your
little inside?'With a shake of his poor little head
he replied:`Oh willow, titwillow, titwillow....'
Inevitably all this bunkum leads to a melodramatized and comic drowning. One result of this spoof may well have been that actresses playing Desdemona thereafter have had a much tougher job to do, since they have to sing their not dissimilar Shakespearean ditty without raising even the hint of a titter.
It is doubtful, though, if the reputation of the poor old willow is any better off for Gilbert and Sullivan's comicality.
WILLOWS really do have sterling and admirable characteristics that should be celebrated in song and verse, but rarely seem to be. Some painters have done their best. Monet made much of his weeping willows at Giverny, as central a motif of his waterlily paintings as the waterlilies themselves. The willows become great screens against the sky, decorative and painterly, plunging their reflections deep into the water space.
John Constable, the English landscape painter, once said that "the sound of water escaping from mill-dams ... willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork" were among the things that made him a painter.
Vincent Van Gogh made at least one striking painting of pollarded willows. He saw them as bursting with juice and energy.
One of the things that has made willows so good to pollard - to cut back periodically in order to induce new growth - is that of all trees, the willow "springs forth speedily," as the Bible says. Its vigor is tremendous.
It is also extremely easy to propagate. Virtually any twig, buried up to its neck in the earth, will root and sprout quickly. In one season a willow can grow from two inches to eight feet, particularly if there is plenty of water. They flourish along the edge of a stream or river. Artist Gwen Raverat celebrates riverbank willows in her wood-engraving (shown on this page). The trees offer her graver and burin an eminently engraveable subject, strong and ebullient.
The stems of many willows are colorful in winter when flower color is in short supply: It is one of their virtues which makes them popular in gardens. The color of their stems can be yellow-green, purplish, orange, deep rust-red. Slender and pliable, the stems of many willows are the very image of their own leap into growth; they are the gazelles among small trees, and their upspring is the diametric opposite of the weepy trees, the picture of renewal and vitality.
WILLOWS are the most unpretentious of trees on the whole, not often grandiose, not too concerned with sublime statement or heroic symbolism. Their continuing usefulness to humans includes the provision of wood chips for fuel.
Christopher Newsholme in his book "Willows, The Genus Salix" praises the ecological correctness of burning willow: "Compared to oil and fossil fuels [it] is very economical as it produces heat rapidly, is clean-burning and leaves little ash." He adds: "The carbon emission during combustion is effectively neutral as the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is less than that absorbed by the willow while it is growing, an important factor in combating global warming."
Particular kinds of willow are grown for basketmaking.
Others are used for making cricket bats. Enthusiasts for this game thus think highly of the willow, and bats are sometimes even referred to as "willows." Cricketers have been known to wax unusually lyrical about the special sound the cricket ball makes when struck competently by a willow-wielder.
But it is as participants in the process of spring that certain willows - particularly male ones - make their mark visually and symbolically.
For their spectacular and various contribution to the joys of this returning season, willows should have been given their literary due long ago. The male catkins emerge from their buds as soon as the air is warm enough. They seem poised to burst out all through a mild winter. At first they tend to be woolly and gray, like tiny rabbits' tails. As they develop they turn into fully fledged "pussy willows," and then they go crazy with excitement and delight, changing into yellow, gold, red, purple, dusty pin k, rust: their anthers breaking out all over.
Yellow willow anthers emerging out of gray catkins form one of the most stimulating sights of spring. Like the alchemy of old - but much more successfully - they transmute base metal into pure gold.
Now - how about a round of the "Willow song?" All together now - but jubilantly, please.