If there has been a personal theme this Covid spring, I would call it “seeing but not seeing”. This sounds mysterious, but I often see things, and yet don’t really take them in. Catkins are a great example. Most years, I love to find the first catkins, bring some in to enjoy, marvel at their softness. Sometime later, I may notice how the willow trees look lacy at a distance, and how pretty that looks. But really, before this I have considered the appearance of the pussy willows to be the main event.
With more time to explore this spring, I have visited the pussywillows and catkins just about every day, noticing not only their great variety, but how also lovely (and sometimes unlovely) they are at each stage of development and in every weather. I have photographed them with my phone, and have observed that the pussywillows most amazing to me I can’t photograph at all – these are the tiniest ones. On a rainy morning, they remind me of twinkle lights, small jewels bedecking the curves of the willows, hundreds of them. There are no pictures of them here!
This may be one of those posts I put together mostly for myself. Now that I have taken time with the pussywillows and catkins, I don’t think I will pass them by again. Even so, behold the variety of expressions of the catkin!!
Pussy willows are dioecious, meaning there are both male plants and female plants. The pussy willows act as insulators, for the flowers (catkins) that will eventually bloom. I am glad to know this because I saw my first pussy willows in January, during a thaw.
Usually the male catkins grow first and release their pollen. Then the female catkins grow and open shortly afterwards to receive pollen. By releasing and preparing to receive pollen at different times the tree has less chance of receiving its own pollen and a greater chance of receiving pollen from other trees. The pollen from other trees can produce stronger offspring. Willows do not spread their pollen via the wind. Instead, they rely on insects for pollination, despite having less than gaudy flowers. What they lack in visual cues, they clearly make up for in olfactory ones, producing large amounts of strongly scented nectar. Bees and flies are readily drawn to pussy willows in full bloom. One of the advantages of flowering early in spring is that there is very little competition for pollinators. The willows gain the full attention of the many bees and flies that also awaken early in the spring and are desperate for food.
Source: Johnny Caryopsis, The Biology of Pussy Willows, Nature North
After the leaves are gone from the trees in the fall, and before they make their miraculous appearance in the spring, I only have eyes for willow!! Not quite true, but it is during late fall, through winter, and into early spring when the willows – the small reddish bushes by sloughs, water of any kind or in ditches – claim my heart. Especially in the season of spring, when the colours of their branches seem to change daily, when they start to look like burning bushes along the road. One willow bush can have branches that are gold, yellow, olive green, copper, rust, red, burgundy, purple/black, grey, brown and a myriad of shades in between.
This spring, the spring of the pandemic, we will all remember. Amongst the gifts of this time for me has been more time outdoors to truly take time to notice. Just across the road from our farm are two small sloughs, both surrounded by willow, aspen, and red osier dogwood. Each day, I have visited the willows, noticing not only 4 varieties of catkins, but especially the vivid and ever-changing colours of their bark. How a very old gnarled willow, which is mostly grey, can have young shoots of every colour. How some branches are greeny gold at their base, moving into an almost orange, and as we get towards the top they turn red or burgundy.
Taking time to notice meant that I could bring willow boughs into the house to paint as it has been wintry and cool outside. I spent a week painting “Willow Meditation#1”. You will see some red osier dogwood here as well because I simply couldn’t resist it! Painting is a way of becoming acquainted with my plant relatives, and teaches me to notice, to take a second or third look. Painting humbles me – the colours look different once I bring the branches inside, and they are very hard to replicate. I never quite do, but I certainly have fun trying!
As i was painting Willow Meditation #1, I began to notice more and more yellow and orange branches, so I began a second willow meditation. Sometimes I ran outside with a branch, looked at it with the sun on it, and ran inside to see if I could I could come a little closer to the vibrancy.
This spring, I have been inspired to paint the willow branches close up. Other years, I have tried to catch a bit of their spirit from far away.
Not all willow trees have pussy willows. An individual tree will produce either male (pollen-producing) or female (seed-producing) flowers, so cross-pollination and fertilization is necessary.
A compound called salicin is found in the inner bark of willow trees – this compound is used as pain relief in aspirin, and many other herbal medicines.
What will I do with my bouquets of willow branches? I will enjoy them a bit longer and then can cut them up and put them in jars of water. After a few days, remove the willow stalks and you have root hormone which will help you with spring transplanting! New transplants also love to be watered with this willow water. Or perhaps I could plant them and create a “living willow hedge”? I could scrape out the inner bark, add it juniper berries collected on the hillsides, and put in my bath with epsom salts – this combination is said to soothe aching muscles.
I notice that I love this slowed down world, even as I sometimes feel grief and worry, or even guilt for appreciating the leisurely pace of life.
I notice that I am breathing more slowly.
I notice that after a week of steady Covid 19 news, I had to shut off the radio and social media for a few days to let my head and heart clear, to give myself time to really take this in. I felt too full – of information, of statistics, of black humour, jokes and diversions, of helpful philosophical takes.
I notice in a new way how deeply grateful I am to live where I live, to have discovered the richness of a small piece of land across the road made up of shelterbelt and wetlands, marsh grasses and willow, ruffed grouse, rabbit, fox, coyote, deer and more. My “noticing walks” take more time because I don’t have to rush off anywhere.
I notice my joy in the easy companionship with our two old dogs, Lady Lucy and Hercules, who are the reason I walk here. Noses to the ground, ears alert, tails awagging, their body language reminds me that I am missing so much.
I notice the male ruffed grouse who has lived here all winter, successfully avoiding the fox, and who is drumming for his mate. I haven’t seen her yet! I notice the pairs of hungarian partridge who I disturb as they sit together near where I walk. I notice the magpies, the ravens, the spring call of the chickadees.
I notice the marsh grass and the brome grass and how the posture and bearing of each is unique. I spend longer than usual looking at dried weeds and I take some home to paint. I become completely captivated by their forms and paint dead plants and their seed heads for several days.
I have always wanted to paint plants at this time of the year, but I have never taken the time to do so before this quarantine. I like to befriend wildflowers and plants – getting to know them better in all seasons and stages is an investment in this rich friendship.
Each day I notice things that I have given a fleeting glance to before, but which I have never before given my full attention.
It’s a little like my gradual understanding of Covid 19 and being quarantined. The other night I dreamed that I was at social gatherings and no one was social distancing. I didn’t have the right language to tell them they must. In this way, Covid 19 has entered my dreams and my sub-conscious world. But in so many other ways, it feels surreal.
Each day, I learn about how the threat of Covid 19 is affecting others – the homeless, those in prison, those seeking shelter from abuse. The cracks in our society are more evident – people being paid minimum wage, losing work with nowhere to fall. The moms who are working at home, and homeschooling, and holding it all together – or not. How this might feel for those in poor or compromised health. Businesses on the brink of shutting down. The grocery store and pharmacy workers, some elderly, going to work day in and day out. The cleaners and laundry workers, care workers, nurses, lab technicians, nurses and doctors who are keeping our hospitals and long term care facilities open and safe. Just yesterday, I read about a woman with breast cancer whose scheduled mastectomy has been cancelled, and who cannot learn how her breast cancer is progressing. I hear these stories as if through a layer of fuzzy wool, distantly. Somehow, these realities are not fully penetrating my being.
I suspect that this will change with time. It will most certainly change when I or someone I know contracts Covid 19, or is affected in some direct way by this pandemic. We learn by degrees. Our minds are absorbing so much. It takes a long while for our bodies to catch up, to fully take in all that this pandemic means. In the meantime, I will accept the gift of time to truly notice the beautiful world just past my door. To be truly here.
It seems fitting to close with this beautiful poem by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer called “Here”.
Even as the snow was falling,
the birds in the branches
kept singing into morning,
easing their bright notes
into the thin gray spaces
There are days, imagine,
when the birds go unheard.
And it isn’t for lack of song—
the single note chirp
of sparrow, the bass of raven,
the chickadee’s hey swee-tee.
Some gifts come only
when we stay in one place,
come only when we are alone,
come only when we stop praying
to be somewhere else and instead
pray to be here.
Y0u can receive a poem a day from the wonderful Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer. Go to her website and subscribe at the bottom.
Sue and Janaye had a wonderful adventure sleeping, baking,watching the Wizard of Oz, and picking pussy willows. We had a relaxing day today and yesterday.