Thursday, December 10, 2009

Golden Willow

I call it my tree but I have no real right to say this. It is a audacious declaration that most of us spout when we try and make claim to something that is essentially divine.

In fairness we may have some justification for claiming dominance over simple material things like bank accounts and shoes, but certainly not to things that exist outside of ourselves in the timeless natural universe.

For a brief time, as I carried it home from the garden center, and it poked its meager foliage outside the confines of my trunk, it was all mine. To the drivers, who spotted the wisp of fluttering greenery, moving sedately along the Van Wyck expressway they could say, "heh, there goes a guy taking his puny tree home from Costco." I had after all, just dished out 35 bucks for a pot of dirt and a slender twig, with about the same height, but none of the sturdy dimensions of hockey stick.

15 years ago when I moved into my small room in Queens I had big plans. I had forsaken what I had identified as the wild natural splendor of Canada, for the urban wasteland which is New York city. On my block there were but a handful of nice big trees. Ones, that if you really looked up at them you could exclaim without hesitation, "Wow."Most of the newer trees appeared to be not much more than runts and looked as though they had a tenuous hold on surviving for another season, let alone grow tall and strong for decades more.

There was scant evidence that the street, not too many years earlier, had once displayed in summer a proud and grand canopy of green. The best and greatest tree on the street, was a stately ancient maple. The grand reach of its limbs was impressive. Its gentle shade spread over innumerable cars and homes over many hot summer days. It succumbed quickly in the aftermath of negligent sidewalk repairs in my first year on the block.

When I dumped the golden willow by the curb, my bubbling expectations for the little tree soared well beyond stellar. In retrospect they seemed to far exceed the capacity of the slender twig in a plastic pot, and perhaps indeed, all the grand plans of nature itself. Regardless, I was pretty sure that it would eventually make a green grand eternal statement, not just for 160th street, but for the entire neighborhood in which there were for me, a surprising absence of fellow willow trees.

Before I had pierced the earth with my shovel the old Greek man from across the street was by my side. He was thin, a little feeble, and seemed to know almost no English but his eyes were bright with enthusiasm as he saw what I was about to do. He coached each shovel full of dirt as the hole grew wider and deeper. I don't know how many trees he had planted, for there were none in front of his home, but he acted as though he had somehow previously planted a forest, in a long Greek lifetime. I of course had planted lots of trees in my own rights as a landscaper but it seemed right keep my thoughts to myself and to comprehend all the bits of his halting counsel.

After I had patted down the last shovel around its trunk I then brought out 2 sturdy stakes to help support it. When I tried to put one on the east and one on the west side his face suddenly grew dark like a swift storm cloud moving across the sun. He took them out of my hands and put the two of them instead to the north and to the south. All the time speaking in stern Greek and gesturing wildly with his hands as though he was going to conjure something out of thin air. I thought it prudent to accept in silence his willow tree planting wisdom. He had lived on the block much longer than I.

Over the years the little willow has discarded any description of itself that could be equated with puny. It has quickly grown grand green and voluminous. During hot summers I have tried to water it so that it might somehow believe it grew by a cool babbling brook. I have also come to understand in a clear tangible way why there are no other similar willows lining the byways of New York city. The cascade of slender golden limbs would simply cease to allow most vehicular traffic to move forward at all.

This happenstance occurred very early on in the trees early years. It required of me a vigilant recognizance of what was happening street side and then a vigorous almost biweekly pruning. That the city itself did not come by and offer up a more devastating permanent solution is a testament, to either the tree's seeming good fortune, a miraculous out shot of the city's "million tree plan," or the simple fact that the coffers of the city did not allow a more vigorous tree management program.

Ultimately it grew so big and so fast that when the parks department finally did come along and prune it they systematically cleared all the branches from its base to almost 30 feet upwards. The crown of the tree was still magnificent and untouched. It has meant that in the last two years I have hardly had to do any pruning at all to ensure the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Also at this time, my rights of ownership were made clear to me by a friend who worked for the parks department. He had given me an advance heads up as to when a parks crew would be imminently working on my block. When I expressed some concerns about what would happen to 'my' willow Chris asked me simply, "does it grow between the sidewalk and the curb?" When I had to admit "yes," he informed me without hesitation, "it is no longer your tree. If it grows in that area it is the city's tree." It was for me a final acknowledgment that it was a timely moment to surrender all claims of ownership and simply accept that the golden willow was now on it's own. It's fate and destiny no longer in my hands.

Like all willows it is the first tree to throw out green leaves in the chilly spring. In fall, just as these pictures demonstrate, it is also grudging in shucking them off. It is a slow measured process, which also includes a surprising quantity of extraneous branches. Some of which are almost big enough to match the dimensions of the original tree.

To be honest I am not sure how my immediate neighbors or the neighborhood itself view the tree. The old Greek man is now no longer with us but his son has on more than one occasion communicated measurable disdain for the leaves that fall and are blown onto his property. I have also tried to keep the flow of people and cars unencumbered but somehow I am not always vigilant enough. From time to time I have discovered ripped and stripped branches scattered sadly on the road and sidewalk. There are however a multitude of others to make up for any such injury now.

As I jot down these thoughts it is while the mean frigid days of fall are marching inexorably forward towards the harsh winter ahead. All the other trees have long since shed their finery and now look quite naked and plain compared to the lingering finery still cloaking the Golden Willow. Soon enough it will make a full retreat from its summer grandeur and join its naked woody brethren. Because it still tenaciously clings to its beauty it inspires me. Though I cannot imagine what practical biological function the lingering leaves could still perform in weather so severe.

Soon enough the leafy golden splendor will once again return to the cascading branches of the willow in front of my home. I confidently imagine of course, that this grand play of nature will go on for many years if not decades to come. Much longer no doubt than I will be there to give it care and admiration.

With each new spring, passerby's and neighbors will marvel at its ever expanding natural magnificence. That something becomes more beautiful with age is an observation that is duly and rightfully deserved by great trees. It is an endearing observation that we aging gardeners, and other mere mortals, are unlikely to see subscribed to ourselves.

"Be like a tree. The tree gives shade even to him who cuts off its boughs."
  • Sri Chaitanya
O Ignorance! I want to be the tree of compassion.
O Man! I want to be the tree of forgiveness.
O Skies! I want to be the tree of aspiration.
O Earth! I want to be the tree of Patience.
Excerpt from Meditations: Food For The Soul by Sri Chinmoy.


Pavitrata said...

Hi Utpal,

Excellent article. The mark of a good writer is the ability to write about everyday things and make us see them anew. This you have done most successfully. Very inspiring.

RSandford said...

My, time flies doesn't it? Very nice Utpal! What impresses me most is that you can actually remember the details of that tree planting 15 years ago... if it had been me, I might be "fairly certain" I was the one who planted it, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Keep it going...


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cabennie said...

Great article.Amazing what changes a few years can bring about. The other comments your article has garnered ,express my feeling exactly

markham said...

Hi Utpal!

What a wonderful story!

It's refreshing to hear about someone taking the initiative to do something like this. Today, so few people are able to even think so far ahead, or follow through on such a small act with such a profound impact. Imagine what the city could be if everyone would pitch in the few dollars and bit of time to plant a treee in front of their house. There was a time when the city would do this on their own, but it seems all too often now, these grand stately trees are being replaced with smaller fast growing and less robust trees.