Weeping for the willow

There’s a hole in our farm’s heart, a hole that’s easy to see directly from the south window in my office of this old farm house.

I’ve been looking out of the window during recent days, somehow hoping that time could be turned back and that hole in the top of our grand old willow would be re-filled with its long tangles of twigs and leaves. Instead, the tree weeps of branches wrenched from its being during a mid-June storm that pillaged and plundered its way across this northern Driftless Area’s soil.Willow tree2 102214

The storm of wind, hail and rain stretched every fiber of the old willow, the tree’s leaves still turned pale compared with the lush fullness I’ve admired on past summers’ days. Occasional leaf-tears flitter through its Rapunzel branches and spatter on the grass below.

My sadness for the way the tree looks since the storm is replaced by me counting the coins of fortune that the tree stands at all, and that our Eimon Ridge farmstead wasn’t damaged more heavily by that storm. Others across the countryside didn’t have such fortune.

Photos from that night are plenty, including people holding hail the sizes of golf balls and baseballs; the hail punched holes in houses’ siding and shredded the green from some fields, trees and gardens.

Trees were broken at their trunks and even fully uprooted.

Corn fields, some of which already had been replanted after flood-causing rains, were gullied and washed down hillsides.

A neighbor’s small shed was blown off its foundation.

That such damage was limited to here-and-there places doesn’t matter, as I count my fortune-coins – if the storm created a hardship for a handful of one of us in this countryside, they’re hardships felt by all of us on this land. It seems we all realize our turns at knowing such hardship.

Our sickened willow also fared better than that of a willow owned by a writer-friend on the other side of the state. Later that night, the same storm had totally blown over his farm’s grand willow.

Though the perspective of our good fortune helps me cope, it still gives me pain to see the suffering of that tree.

Erling, whose family arrived from Norway and homesteaded this ground during the mid-1800s, tells me he planted the tree in his earlier years, using a cutting from previous generations of the farm’s willows. It’s risen to stand guard over several generations whose souls haunt this old house.

The willow is home to critters beyond my count, the orioles and grosbeaks hanging sideways from those Rapunzel branches and hiding nests in its safety. Squirrels use the tree to nest and enjoy walnut treats from other nearby trees. The list of animals using it as a home seems endless.

Its striking majesty and girth have given it a sort of public celebrity over the years. Passersby traveling by automobile, on horseback, on bicycles or afoot occasionally stop on the road to gaze at the old willow.

The tree also has long been a point of goodhearted contention among those who’ve lived on this farm. Among that group, every three words of praise are met with a word of complaint about how the Rapunzel limbs tangle people and equipment caring for the farmyard under the tree.

Though we’ve already spent a few years of borrowing this place from its soil, it wasn’t until this spring that I realized the tree’s importance on our farm. On that evening, Dee and I rode our utility vehicle to the top of the ride on the next section over. We stopped for a while to take in what spring offers, noting how the trees were gaining their season’s green.

And then, looking down to our farm’s buildings, we seemed to notice simultaneously how the old willow dwarfed our house and everything else on the farm. The willow tree is the farm’s queen, a title bestowed not by mere humans but by nature itself.

I’ve considered the reality that my concern for the old willow is as more about my mortality than it is for the tree’s mortality. We all understand how long it takes such old trees to grow, after all. We imagine all of what it might have seen.

So, my mortal being asks, if trees such as grand old willow and other aged trees – those figures to which we’ve seen represent such strength – break and fall, how are we weak beings expected to continue standing long with any strength?

Beside trees so strong live we, the weak.

Though the old willow stands with a hole in its heart, it’s through that hole that today I see the sky’s blue and through which new rays of sun shine. I suspect the sky and sun will help heal that hole, eventually re-filling it with new branches and new life. And, I suspect the leaves’ deep green will return, inviting the tree’s resident critters to return home.

I hope that healing happens, at least, because I don’t feel ready to weep for our willow.

— Scott Schultz

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