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My Golden Weeping Willow—Finding Grounding In The Spectacular Ordinary

Naturalist Susan Marsh opens her old journal and muses on boredom, beauty, impermanence and the lament of a tree cut down

Golden weeping willows are not native to Wyoming. Still, Susan Marsh mourned the loss of the tree that grew outside her  office at the U.S. Forest Service
Golden weeping willows are not native to Wyoming. Still, Susan Marsh mourned the loss of the tree that grew outside her office at the U.S. Forest Service
When I worked at the Bridger-Teton National Forest in the late 1980s, my office window faced south, toward Snow King and the mountains to the east of Jackson. A mature golden willow spread its shade across the lawn next to the building, and during the summer it was hard to see past it. When the tree was bare of leaves, which meant for about six months of the year, I looked through its interlacing branches to watch skiers on the hill and swans flying low between patches of open water along Flat Creek.

At first I looked through the willow, the same way I did the window. I knew the tree was there, of course, but I didn’t really see it. I was used to charging into the office in the morning and banging on the computer keyboard to get through my e-mail before 8 am when everyone else showed up and the interruptions began. After 20 minutes, my messages were deleted or stored or turned into jotted notes and appointments on the calendar: call so-and so, send someone this document, get this report to the regional office in Ogden next week. Then it was off to a meeting or a field review or, if I was lucky, a horseback ride with one of the district rangers.

Even in the midst of rushing around, my busyness struck me as ridiculous. I lived in the mountains where other people came to relax on vacation, while I’d fallen into a frenzied pace, surrounded by distractions from the world of seasons, light, and living things. The reasons people come here to play, or stay.

Near the start of another year I promised to slow down. I bought a notebook and put it in my desk drawer, determined to take five minutes each morning before doing anything else and write random thoughts about what was important for the day, what I noticed while walking to work, or whatever was on my mind that needed clearing before I could devote my full attention to the job.

Writing in a notebook was acceptable to me, while sitting at my desk without it was not. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I was equally unable to sit without doing something for very long anywhere, whether at work, home or out in the woods. I thought about the quote that a friend who meditated had taped to her wall: Don’t just do something; sit there.

A different mantra had been drummed into me: be productive, get something done, don’t mope around the house. “If you’re bored,” my mother said, “I’ll give you something to do.”

The first time I heard this spoken by a boss, I was 19. After my freshman year in college I took a year off and moved into a rooming house in Seattle’s University District. My vague goal was to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do, and to save a little money. I found a part-time position at Frederick and Nelson’s department store downtown, which included a semi-formal dining room and a less formal soda fountain. I worked at the fountain, where customers sat at marble counters like those in an old-fashioned drugstore. A trickle of hatted, gloved ladies broke the quiet of morning and a thinner trickle arrived in the afternoon. Lunch hour was the only time they interrupted their shopping for refreshment. I wiped counters and made sure the soda glasses were carefully arranged, and then I basically stood around.

“What should I do when there are no customers?” I asked my supervisor.

He tossed me a damp cloth.  “Just look busy.”

I wiped the clean countertop again.

Bored out of my mind, invisible to the patrons unless I made a mistake, about which they loudly complained, I quickly felt imprisoned. Looking busy was harder than actually being busy. When break time came around, I could help myself to anything waiting in the kitchen—fresh cantaloupe, soup, sandwiches. Most days I sat in the windowless employee ‘lounge’ with the door closed, eating a hot fudge sundae. Whenever I felt sorry for myself, ice cream was my drug of choice.

I may not have shone at making malts and serving grilled cheese sandwiches, but I was well practiced at the art of being busy. By the time I was in high school, even recreation was performance. I ran laps on the local high school track to be in shape for backpacking and climbing mountains. Throughout my twenties and thirties I ran five miles a day. In my forties, I jogged. After fifty, I walked.  See, I tell myself now, at 65, you’ve finally slowed down.

On a January morning, I opened my new notebook and passed my hand over the smooth lined pages, the clean brown cover. It smelled like paper, not smeared ink and spilled coffee and onions from a sandwich eaten at my desk. I’ll write neatly, I thought, and keep these pages clean, ready for moments of inspiration.

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker
As I gazed out the window wondering what I was going to write about, my pen began to doodle on its own, drawing little curlicues and geometric forms. I glanced down to see that I’d marred the pristine page the way I promised not to. But because of it, the need to write profound words of wisdom evaporated and I gave more serious thought to the reason I’d bought the thing to begin with.

One of those two-by-four to the head moments occurred: it’s the tree, dummy. It stood there as the obvious slowly dawned on me. I stopped looking through the willow and actually saw it. Standing there as it had done for years.

Trees don’t just stand there, they’re busy. Roots probe the soil, nutrients are exchanged with fungi, buds form and open and branches grow long, fluids are pumped up and down the cambium layer, leaves work hard for a few sunny months then fall away to be replaced the next year, injuries and insect attacks are monitored and dealt with, and wood and bark are added to create a fortress of a plant. Trees do the opposite of people—instead of looking busy they appear to be the picture of repose.

From my purposes, the willow waited patiently, quietly, and it wasn’t going anywhere. It gave me focus, something to start writing about as a simple object of observation. My jottings might capture one of the occasional insights that rocketed through my brain like comets, leaving little besides trails of dust. The willow was my neighbor and I needed to make its acquaintance.
The golden willow is a cultivar of an Old World species, not native to Wyoming. Many people consider them to be weeds. But when you’re looking for a fast-maturing shade tree in a climate with a growing season of about two months, the golden willow is hard to beat.
The golden willow is a cultivar of an Old World species, not native to Wyoming. Many people consider them to be weeds. But when you’re looking for a fast-maturing shade tree in a climate with a growing season of about two months, the golden willow is hard to beat. Its cascades of yellow catkins are fragrant in spring, giving bees something to do when not much else is in bloom. Its bright-orange twigs offer the only color in town on a drab late winter day. And the willows are full of aphids and other bugs during fall migration. Vireos, kinglets and warblers spend days in their crowns, filling up for flight. Woodpeckers, flickers, nuthatches and sapsuckers probe the furrowed bark for other insect treats. So, introduced weeds or not, golden willows aren’t without their usefulness.

In the early 1990s  “my” willow was slated for removal. Its branches grew into the phone lines and its roots into the septic system. Its five main trunks were thick and heavy and thus assumed to be rotten. The tree was declared a hazard, although anyone could see that it protected itself from wind-throw quite well with a network of fine-textured branches that broke the wind and came off like lizard’s tails when a gust blew through, much to the annoyance of our groundskeeper who had to pick them up.

Until the tree outside my office window was in danger, I didn’t realize I wasn’t the only one to appreciate its shade, the rustle of wind in its branches, and the illusion of being in the woods that it offered when my eyes, weary from staring at the computer screen, drifted toward the sunlight. Even the groundskeeper liked it.

Enough of us raised hell that the tree was trimmed—quite heavily—and not cut down. I was glad for its reprieve, not only for its own sake but for the gifts it had given me. While much of my work took place outside, over the years more and more had to be done by computer and conference call. The tree served to reconnect me with the humane pace of the wild world whenever I looked at it.

° ° °

Here are a couple of my early notebook entries:

January: The morning sun has begun to light up the willow outside. The tree fills my view with its bare branches. The roofs of buildings and the forested ridge beyond look like a Christmas card scene. It snowed last night, just enough to dust the rooftops and leave lines of white along the curve of each willow branch. If I squint a little, it looks like a finely carved woodcut. When was the last time I did a woodcut? [Before I started another sentence the phone rang. A quarter after seven—really? My day began and the notebook went back into the drawer.]

Pine Siskin by Simon Pierre Barrette
Pine Siskin by Simon Pierre Barrette
Mid-February: 
 This morning the wind came up and knocked last evening’s snow from the willow branches. The tree is full of pine siskins. Their short, rasping call ends with a question: is it spring yet? I have begun to notice a difference in the siskins. All winter at my feeder they were drab and tolerant of each other. Now the yellow in their wings has brightened and they challenge each other with open beaks and flapping wings, crouching possessively over the sunflower seeds.  They seem to use more energy fighting than they get from the seeds.

After a month, noticing the willow has become a habit I look forward to, but interruptions continue to pull me away. Urgent tasks demand attention; I give in to discover the need was not so urgent after all. The messages on my computer inbox pile into the hundreds, most of them unnecessary, outdated bits of information. But I have to take the time to read each one to see whether I needed to look at it or not.

The willow demands nothing. It has no deadlines, but if I don’t pay attention I’m out of luck. I almost missed the goldeneyes that just flew over, their wings whistling loudly enough that I could hear them through the closed window.

It is light now when I leave the house for the walk to work. Every day for a week the coyotes have been singing, their yodels and yips close and hungry. They gather on a grassy knob above the east end of town, where the road to the Elk Refuge leaves pavement. It is at least a half-mile away, but the coyote voices penetrate, as if they were next door. 

End of February: Snowstorms alternate with warm, gentle days. The sun angle is higher, the light softer. The sky has gone from cobalt blue to a color closer to turquoise with yellow highlights. The cold air that slammed against my brow in January has turned to a caress, broken by soft breezes. A winter’s worth of gravel disintegrates to dust in the streets, where the wind picks it up and blows it into my face. I grind it between my molars.

Bohemian Waxwing by Randen Pederson
Bohemian Waxwing by Randen Pederson
The wild creatures seem to know winter is nearly over. Chickadees repeat their spring song. Last week near Kelly Warm Springs, a dozen adult bison nibbled at the ground then suddenly ran together with their heads down, kicking their heels at the sky like calves. Flocks of waxwings sweep through town, picking cotoneasters and wild rose bushes clean of berries, conversing in their gentle peeps from the willow.  This morning finches claim the willow, singing, weaving themselves among the branches like a moving rosy garland.

The birds’ restlessness reflects my own. I clean my office, dust the shelves, open the window on mild afternoons. At lunchtime I wander across town, checking out the newly raked flowerbeds where folded leaves and shoots emerge, perfectly formed and poised for action. The aspen buds have broken, exposing furry silver globes. The willow tree brightens, the ocher of its smaller branches glowing in the morning sun.

° ° °

And so on, little blurbs of observation written over the course of a couple of years. No big insights left their comet trails. I saw no unusual birds. But the practice of noticing, of giving attention to something familiar day after day, helped me understand and appreciate it more. I came to think of that tree and my friend and mentor. It helped me to appreciate many other ordinary things. Though if you think about it, trees, while covering much of the planet in their multitudes, are anything but ordinary.

My encounters with the golden willow took place close to 25 years ago. Now I am retired, and the tree is hardly a memory as the new Bridger-Teton Forest supervisor’s office, planned since 1995, has finally been completed. Nearly all of the old trees were sacrificed for construction—willows, cottonwoods, aspens, and big shaggy spruces. They have been replaced by an assemblage of horticultural plants that would look more at home in a business park in Portland. When the groundskeeper retired, before the old building was razed, he went around and hugged each of the trees he had looked after, trees he knew were doomed.
The willow did what we all do. It survived as long as possible, then gracefully surrendered to what we humans like to call progress. I have recently heard that the mule deer that used to winter in the willow wetlands behind the old office still come by, wondering what happened to their haven.
The willow did what we all do. It survived as long as possible, then gracefully surrendered to what we humans like to call progress. I have recently heard that the mule deer that used to winter in the willow wetlands behind the old office still come by, wondering what happened to their haven. I heard that people dug the tulip bulbs to take home and someone bucked the trunk of the golden willow for firewood.

It pleases me to know that remnants of the old landscaping have survived in people’s gardens, or were put to use in a woodstove. And knowing willows, I would not be surprised to see a returning apparition of the golden willow whose roots still linger in the soil. It might send up a subversive sprout to invade the ill-adapted Irish moss and Japanese spirea. It might provide a corner of shade against the building once again.
Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
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