Willows are graceful and easily recognized by their long thin branches that sometimes reach the ground. Their green leaves are also long and narrow with finely toothed edges. They grow well near water, especially where the soils are acidic, loamy, and well-drained. They grow fast, more then 24” per year, reaching heights up to 80′ with a spread of 50’. In April and May, they produce yellow flowers born on short catkins. Producing brown fruit 1/4” in diameter, male and female flowers grow on separate trees.
All trees have defenses mechanisms. For willows, it’s the production of salicylic acid, a precursor of aspirin that’s on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, those safest and most effective. A tea made from willow bark can relieve headaches and bring down fevers. Salicylic acid is a key ingredient in topical skin care products, and it’s used as a food preservative, bactericide and an antiseptic.
To reproduce, willows use their colorful blossoms and olfactory signals to draw attention to themselves and attract passing bees. Sweet, sugar-rich nectar rewards them in exchange for the dusting the bees receive during their visit. Other willow species—poplars as well—send fine-haired seeds adrift on the wind for long distances.
Native to China, willows are mentioned in texts from ancient Egypt, Sumer and Assyria. The Celtic nations used their wood in ceremonies to enhance psychic abilities. The Cherokee and other Native Americans use an infusion of the bark to reduce fever and inflammation and treat rheumatism and headaches. It’s also a symbol of inner wisdom for them, a reminder to keep an open mind with the stability and the strength of age and experience.
For us, because willows are one of the few trees that bend without breaking, they can provide a model of flexibility, the ability to go with the flow of life—hold ideas, conversations, opinions and news lightly and adjust to change appropriately always eager to explore greater truth, expand awareness and act with empathy.
Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.
Another quality of willows that we can learn from is their adaptability. They can survive in challenging soil and weather conditions, sometimes taking root from a single fallen branch. As I write, the world is responding to the Coronavirus pandemic. All of a sudden, humanity is waking up to the fact of our interconnectedness and interdependence. I find it curious, instructive actually for the future, that although the Federal government has been and continues to be slow to respond—more in an “It’ll be alright” mode than “All hands on deck; here’s the information and this is what needs to be done”—the public and their local affiliations are assuming the responsibility for rapid and appropriate responses. I think we’ve all gotten the message: In a whole-systems crisis, the way through is best managed by the parts (members), each adjusting to change according to his or her circumstances. Those at the top of the social pyramid need to be prepared to provide those in the middle and bottom with the resources they need to help them help themselves. In the case of a pandemic, that means ensuring that test kits are immediately available and testing sites widespread, fully supplied and prepared.
We are not to be forced into a choice between uniformity on the one hand—everybody exactly alike—and alienation on the other hand—everybody divided into different groups antagonistic to one another. We can behave like an ecological network. Currently, we are shifting and adjusting, mutating and suffering extinctions: the human ecology is in motion, groping for adaptation.
Because willows are prolific growers, they can also remind us that, irrespective of conditions and circumstances, we can grow as persons and family members right where we are. Especially, we can grow in consciousness—by developing our self-identity and improving the quality of our relationships with others, the planet and God—however we perceive that and by whatever name we prefer. I specify the development of consciousness because growth for its own sake is the ideology and methodology of cancer cells. Professional growth is a different challenge. For many, it requires a move to another city. And while that complicates family matters physically, it’s equivalent to the willow seed blown in the wind far from the parent tree. Wherever it lands, it puts down roots and begins the process of reaching to the sky.
Human society can no longer afford behavior that is selfish, arrogant or separative. The time has come to mobilize every major discipline in human affairs — psychology, sociology, philosophy, theology, economy, art, writing, drama, science and technology, business and industry and all that our electronic age is able to offer — for an all-out effort to inquire into those human characteristics that are growth directed, future-oriented, species centered and globalizing, altruistic and open-ended, and that includes love and faith, trust, courage, humility, creativity, empathy, sharing and a sense of community, human potential for change, growth and maturation and many other constructive human characteristics.
Willow isn’t weeping.
Her head’s down, pondering,
by the exquisite sunlight
streaming through her leaves;
water quenching her roots.
Willow’s inner powers of healing
are strengthened by her awareness
of Self, an expression of the Ground.
Content and in place, she remembers
when, as a sprout,
she dreamed of being just as she is.
David L. Smith
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