THE WAY OF THE WILLOW by S.H. Gilbert © 1987, 2008
Once upon a time, before you or I or even our oldest friends were born, this land, this very spot where we are now sitting warm and cozy, was a wild and fierce place. Then it changed.
Some say the change came through a mystic from the eastern seas, while others claim this organic alchemy was caused by a priestess from the rough dolmens to the northwest, who saw how much this place needed calm and so planted an oak.
Now; how much can an oak do, you say? I will say that this was no ordinary seedling, but one which had seen the first dawn, so long ago. Truly, the oak did slow so slightly that frenetic pace of that place and age.
The oak, though, was not alone in that tempest. Close by was a willow, ever so ancient, who decided to help the seedling, for that was the willow's way.
So the two of them, oak seedling and bending willow, watched time weave her quilt upon the land.
From the rocks, brooks, and then minute forests of lichen crept slowly forward, uncertain at first, though after a while bubbling with relaxed certainty. The rock gave way to soil. Through gales of rain and sheets of ice the trees stood, taking it all in concert.
At last, the sun shone through the murky gray. It was a remarkable sight. Everything from one horizon to the next was green and flourishing. This was a happy time for the trees, stretching their limbs and branches as far as they could reach, shaking their leaves and laughing for the sun. Moreover, the oak grew, until finally its roots intertwined with those of the willows. Ah, they frolicked. Yes - trees can frolic quite merrily without a twig of help from us, thank you very much; and they shared sights and sounds that only have meaning to trees, and some that only make sense to the wisest ones.
For us, time is a road from one side to the other. For trees, time rises to the skies. When the oak felt very far above the ground, the willow began to change for the worse. Its branches no longer grew as many new leaves with the season's change, and its boughs grew heavier with each passing storm. One morning, as the oak stretched and shook good morning to the season, it became as clear as crystal what was occurring.
The willow was preparing to elapse, to imbue yet another form with everything the oak had come to count on, sight, spirit, and soul. This trembled the oak down to the roots.
The willow stirred, and, sensing the concern of the oak, whispered through its branches;
"Soon, someday soon, ' The willow's branches rustled ever so slightly, "I will wind my way through the loam and on to new suns and breezes, and you will not follow me for quite a long while, though you will remember me by the birds that alight upon your boughs and the winds that whisper my memories. And one day you will share yourself with the light of all things."
They waited for the night together. In the morning, as the first lark sang a welcome to the willow, the oak knew the willow had passed through to new loam.
At first, it was painful every morning for the oak, as the willow stood its ground. Nevertheless, slowly, slowly, the willow dropped bark and branch, providing for the earth’s many small and smaller. Many found a home in the decaying trunk. The oak was rather put off by this, thinking it all together too rude a treatment for such a good friend; though that soon gave way to happiness that so many were able to make a home. One thing gnawed away at the oak's heart through all this:
"Is there not a tree with whom I can teach as the willow taught me?"
This thought gnawed at his heart over many seasons, though so subtly as to be hardly noticed at all. Still, the oak did as well as could be expected to greet each day cheerfully, shaking its many boughs with sparkle and sweetness.
The oak kept a good spirit and a love of all living things. More time passed, and the nagging emptiness still tugged at the oak at moments least expected. Through it all, through seasons bright and dark, the oak waited patiently, spreading it's boughs even further, growing roots deeper and wider from it's trunk, searching for another.
After much time had passed, the oak was old, much older than the willow was when it had elapsed, and the oak felt its spirit slip along with the breezes. So the oak tried to hold to its spirit; at least until there was a seedling nearby to share the passing with. The old lonely gnawing was working its way out from within the tree.
Finally, it got too much for the old oak to bear. He shook branches angrily, uselessly, at the wind and sun for not carrying a seedling nearby for company. The oak shook branches at the ground creatures for not being better companions and at the willow for leaving the oak. When we are most upset, sometimes we feel our pain sleet hard and cold. Leaves fell and did not grow back.
Then, one bright, warm day, two birds made their nest in the oak's boughs. At first, the oak thought of shaking the birds out, being still quite an unhappy tree. When the oak saw, however, that the birds were nesting to raise young, well, that was different and the oak thought better of it. It was good that the birds stayed, for they were songbirds, and their brood brought considerable enjoyment. The mood of the oak changed from despair to joy. The nesting birds flew with the first snow, thought not before singing the loveliest song they knew in thanks for the tree's help. Alone again, the old oak diminished.
One fierce night, as stormy a night as had ever been seen, as wild a night as had been the night the oak was seeded, thunder and lightening roared in a frightening chorus. The oak shook its branches one last time. The clouds rumbled and a sharp blue bolt of lightening struck the oak straight down the middle, splitting the trunk and sending branches crashing down in all directions. The oak passed with wildness sounding through every fiber of its being to a new self.
The next morning, all the forest was still as one by one, creatures of the ground and air bade goodbye to the oak. And birds, hundreds and hundreds of birds, took the acorns that had crowned every branch and spread them far and wide, until there were many oak seedlings growing as far as the eye could see, eager to provide companionship. And here, in this very spot, where all around us spreads this grove of oaks, are trees that are many sons and daughters of that first oak, welcoming us with shade in the summer and kindling in the winter. For the oak did get its wish in a manner grander than had ever been hoped for, for it is the oak that is the readiest companion for us all.