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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Ripple at Three…

backyard willowWillows whiten, aspens quiver…

“The Lady of Shallot,” Tennyson

Today The Ripple turns three. When I sat down to write the first post on that February day three years ago, spring had advanced to the pussy willow stage. In that initial post I mentioned a cutting of willow I rooted and planted out back. It was a two-year old sapling when The Ripple was born. At this posting that little sprout has grown to a height of fifteen to eighteen feet and today its twigs and branches bulge with furred catkins.

Most anniversaries are a time for reflection, a time to sort through the archives of memory. At its inception the intent of The Ripple  was to report the Valley news observed from my walking and riding “to and fro and up and down in it,”and that is what I’ve tried to do. 242 posts later The Ripple still plods on at a leisurely pace much the same as its author afoot or wobbling along on Gladys. 242 posts. 242 titles. So many posts, in fact, that truth be told I’ve forgotten the content of many of them and at this stage of my life I’m like the grandparent who spins the same tale time and again much to the grandkids’ dismay. My editorial apologies if any subsequent posts echo those of their predecessors.

As The Ripple was born into the month of pussy willows, it seems fitting that this post share a little willow information both from the past and my own personal experiences. The willow belongs to the genus Salix, and during medieval times the cuttings were brought to England (along with the French language) by 11th century Normans and were cultivated for use in basket making and crafting furniture such as chairs and hampers. Willows root readily in damp soil and in England February was designated as the ideal month for planting Salix:

                         Set willow to grow, in the stead of a stake,

                         For cattle, in summer, a shadow to make.

                                  Lost Country Life

During the Enclosures, Parliamentary acts largely responsible for the demise of rural living, the English countryside went from common ownership for haying and pasturage to private possession. Ditches and hedgerows were used to mark the new landowners’ boundaries. Because of its fast growing nature and fibrous root system, willow was one of the many varieties of tree used to form the hedgerow. Willows, beeches, ash, and oaks at the sapling stage were bent and staked horizontal to the barrow atop the ditch above which they were planted. Side branches were pressed into the top of the berm, rooted there, forming a sort of vertical espalier, the trunks of which formed the hedgerow. Many of these ancient hedgerows yet exist in modern day England and Europe.

In 1974 when we bought our one slim acre, before the mortgage, before the house, we were in such a hurry to stake our claim to the place we decided to clear a patch and plant our very first vegetable garden. One of the crops we chose was lima beans. The variety we selected was a pole variety, and I searched around for some suitable poles to support the vines. In those years the High Rock area was almost a pristine wilderness and willow coverts sprouted along the railroad grade across the road. From one stand I cut seven nice, sturdy poles and hauled them back to the garden. I set the poles in the ground and circled each with bean seed. The seed sprouted, and to my surprise so did the bean poles! As the summer progressed, bean vines and willow leaves competed for sunlight on the willow staves. 

A few years later (by then I had moved along to cedar bean poles) I thought I’d try my hand at basket weaving and set the goal of weaving a basket from natural materials at hand: hazelnut withes for rim, handle and ribs, cornhusks, pendant branches of Alaska yellow cedar, daylily leaves woven into cord, and cedar bark dropped from a passing log truck for the warping between the ribs. Back across the road again to the willow grove from which I ripped several long strips of bark for later basket projects. (Currently pending…but one of these days….)

Willow bark for baskets

My most memorable experience with pussy willows is personal but one I’m quite willing to share. Eastern Washington winters are long and cold, and our rambling ranch house on the banks of the Columbia was drafty. Two parents and six kids rattling around inside for weeks on end gave rise to a bad case of cabin fever, and come February sibling rivalry had turned from banter and badgering to hands-on altercations. The latter days of the month, before any blood was shed, we were turned out of doors and told to go find spring. Loosed from the house, we scattered into the hills and sagebrush looking for the first greenery of spring (Oh, the delight we found in a greening fern basking at the foot of a sun warmed boulder!). A favorite playground for us ranch children we simply called the “Canyon.”  Walled with clay banks in which cliff swallows nested in the summer and into which we carved our names and the date of the carving, the canyon was formed over the centuries by spring runoffs. As the season moved forward, the rush of water became a stream and during the hottest weeks of summer dwindled to a trickle which snaked along the canyon floor emptying at last into the river. Cress lined the little watercourse during the growing season, and we would chew the leaves to enjoy their tang. Willows, too, thrived in the moist sand of the margins. When the willows puffed forth their catkins, it was a sign spring was imminent, and with my jackknife I would cut a dozen branches—enough for a bouquet—and carry them home to my mom as certain proof that spring’s vernal promise was sealed.A clowder of catkins

The other day I was rummaging around in the clutter that is my desk and at the far end of a drawer, hidden beneath a stack of miscellany, I discovered a little blue box, cigar box-sized, upon which was the sharpie-scribbled phrase “Personal Keepsakes.” I had forgotten it was there. Among the personal memorabilia, I found a  note from my mom.  The note was brief, just three sentences, dated March 1, 1992. She had been for a walk that day and discovered pussy willows growing along the river. Her last sentence had me awash in memory and nostalgia. “Thank you,” Mom said, “ for all the pussy willows you ever brought me.”

Willows can be a pain in the landscape (the“weeping” as in “weeping willow” may pertain to the gardener, as well). Their aggressive root systems clog drain fields and plug sewer lines. The trees are messy: they shed branches and leaves everywhere; they perpetuate themselves by throwing sprouts and shoots all around them, even after the tree is cut to the ground; in short, they delight in being invasive. Why, then, you ask, did I plant a pussy willow out back? Well, I just told you, didn’t I.kittens on a stick

And so The Ripple marches on into the New Year…. 

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