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Willow Dreams. Part Three: Summer

Ah, the summer heat; the world displays at its best. There is no other season that epitomises joy and a sense of living such as the summer.
A skylark hovers, mid twitter, some sixty or seventy feet high in the air, a mere dot, before diving back to terra firma at break neck speed. Roe deer casually graze, seemingly oblivious to my presence, although still at a safely respectable distance. A barn owl hunts openly over the land looking for his next furry meal.
I stand in the shade of the mighty willow engulfed by his protective mantle. The now olive green limbs stretch out further into the passing stream. I follow the lines of catkins who march steadily down to the lapping water below. It is here, lying motionless, that an optimum predator lies in wait: a pike. Like the willow itself the pike holds an almost mythical standing in England’s wild folklore. It sits and waits, eyes seeing all and mouth ready to sample the view. How many of the streams minnows and sticklebacks meet their doom in-between this voracious predators teeth, I suppose I will never know, but I would think it very many. The willows gently moving, trailing limbs provide the perfect camouflage for the perfect predator. It is a reminder to me that in nature even the summer, a time of life and exuberance, can be a time of swift death.
This summer is a hot one. It is a time for outdoor activities followed by cooling drinks. An ideal time for that most English of sports: cricket. The sound of leather on willow evokes memories of long days; days of childhood innocence; days of white trousers stained with verdant green knees. In these modern times of computers and mobile phones there will never be anything to replace the willow cricket bat. It’s not just the aesthetic pleasure derived from holding a bit of God’s own creation in your hands, but the dreams, memories and smiles that are party to smacking a boundary with that lovely willow wood.
Dreaming of such times, I stand once more looking up at my resplendent, old friend. I wonder how many of his fellows have donated of their limbs to make a game of cricket possible. I hope the willow itself can take at least some heart from the pleasure its sacrifice has given the likes of me.
Several weeks pass by. I find myself too hot; too clammy and agitated to bring myself to the stream and the meadows it dissects. It is only once the heavens break and a storm of a magnitude I have rarely witnessed descends upon the landscape, that I feel the inexorable pull of my favourite place. Applying a layer of waterproof clothing that would rival a penguin for water repellence; overcoat, hat and finally pulling my gore-tex trousers over my wellingtons, I am ready to venture forth.
The heat doesn’t take long to take effect. By the time that I reach the pasture I am already soaking wet, both outside and inside my clothing. I squelch through the long grass, each strand hung heavy with a necklace of raindrops. Until finally, rising above the neighbouring landscape, standing elegantly like a massive green umbrella, the willow waits for me. Framed by the storm like a hero of greek legend, a Hercules of gentle proportions, the willow sways in the summer storm. Each blast of wind blowing a myriad tiny droplets from its frame. It appears to shake, not from anger, but from a desire to release the water upon its body back to the flowers and grass at its base that have needed refreshment for so long. Is it my imagination or is the willow a shepherd, carefully protecting and tending for the lesser fauna it watches over. I wish that I had such a being to look after me.
I hurry to close the distance between us and dive within the protection of the willow’s leafy canopy, the need to get out from the lashing rain overwhelms me. Finding the shelter I desire, I proceed to remove and empty the water from my overflowing boots using the willow’s sturdy, gnarled trunk as support. It is then that I notice, miracle-like, that I am not alone. I stand amidst the waters from the overflowing stream. Unable to contain the copiously vast amounts of extra water the stream has belched forth its guts; weeds, sticks and fish, mill haphazardly around my legs. If I hadn’t have been here, I wouldn’t have believed it! Even more remarkably, minnows, sticklebacks and pike appear to have struck a temporary truce in a desperate attempt to re-navigate their way back to the main waters of the stream.
I feel an unbridled need to help my aquatic friends find their way home. Stripping off my jacket and laying it across the ground in front of me, I try to corral the fish back towards the stream’s main channel.
It takes time, but eventually I manage to gently return the vast majority of my new friends back to where they belong. I stagger, stiff-backed, out from under the willow’s leaves and plod my way slowly home. A lightning crack a final farewell to this most strange of events.

The next morning, I return back across the saturated fields to the willow and his sodden domain. Catkins lay strewn about his rooted feet and leaves lie flat to the branches as though pasted there. The whole land shimmers in a hazy steam as the sun’s rays burn back down on the landscape. The mists add to the mystical aura that the whole area holds.
Wiping aside the overhanging branches, I step back within the willow’s folds. The water that only yesterday had lapped at my knees, has all but receded away. Barely a sign of the previous days onslaught of rainwater exits. The stream still appears full but otherwise back within the constraints of its low banks. I squelch about searching for something, but I am not totally sure what! Then I see it: a single, small fish. Deserted by his friends, unlucky enough to have been left stranded high and dry upon a piece of raised earth, he lies lost, alone, dead. Sandwiched between a patch of daises and a clump of dandelions, he resembles a lost soldier on the battlefield. If only I could have done more for him? If only he had stayed with his fellows, he wouldn’t have had to die. Even one lost life is too many. For the second time in recent memory I feel like I’ve failed someone, but more importantly I feel again like I’ve failed myself. I turn and leave the summer behind.


Willow dreams. Part Two: Spring

I have never really been one of those people who like to look at flowers. There is, however, an indisputable beauty to the overall effect that a dash of colour can provide. Rather like an artist adding those first few strokes of colour to an otherwise blank canvass, the transformation can only inspire and stimulate the observers sensory system. It starts with the snowdrop, who emerges from the late winter, pushing upwards out of the semi-frozen ground, raising his little white cap to the world and announcing the imminent arrival of spring. The snowdrops, huddling together in their miniature battalions, herald my return to the willow tree.
The willow’s snowy mantle has at last been cast off, but it still clearly feels the chill. A light westerly wind caresses the golden tendrils, reanimating their recently frozen lengths. Reaching down to the stream below, the willow drinks deeply from the now freely flowing and at last unfrozen water.
Taking a deep breath, I fill my lungs with the aromas of an advancing spring. The scent of new life emanates from all around me. It is ironic that the snowdrops feisty selves will be long gone by the time those first wisps of springtime achieve full pomade.
The tiny buds of future catkins poke their newborn heads out from the willow’s arms. I marvel at the sight of life reborn; there seems no time for the natural world to dwell on anything but the here and now, unlike myself. I smile silently as two chaffinches hurtle about, purposely purposeless. The oncoming spring has been noticed by more than just the flora.

Five days have passed since I last visited the willow by the stream; not quite a week, yet the change to its immediate surrounding are immense. The short lived snowdrops have gone, only a few green leaves remain to mark their ever having been there. The stream bustles past at break neck speed in a desperate rush to join a river then the sea. The willow itself has expanded like a man inhaling a deep breath, or a bird fluffing itself up to impress a possible mate. It doesn’t appear, however, to have anyone to impress but me.
A soothingly mild, westerly wind eases itself into every available nook and cranny, licking at the land like a mother stimulating life in a newborn. There are seismic alterations to the bird population. Gone are the winter visitors; geese that had taken up residence on the distant marshes have left for the colder climes of the hauntingly named Svalbard and even distant Siberia. Arctic visitors have left and in their place the returning small birds; chiffchaffs and warblers in the grasses, to be followed shortly by lapwing and curlew. The animals, too, have started to shed there winter coats in favour of new spring designer wear. I spot a fox loitering along the waters edge, unsure whether the water that was so recently frozen has indeed defrosted or if his bleary eyes are playing a last, cruel, winters joke on him. The glossy sheen that he wears so proudly bears testament to the change in the seasons.
The stream seems to have become owned by a mallard who has pitched his tent upon this, his territory, in search of a mate. Everything and everyone readies themselves for the full effects of spring.
The willow, imperious whatever the weather, rustles in the breeze, like a cat awaking from a deep sleep only to purr into life anew. He of course has seen many springtimes come and go, even false ones, yet still the unmistakeable joy that all things display at the oncoming warmth, emanates from his every fibre. I stand, as I so often have, and marvel at this foreign creature. The fables of the willow hanging over the distant streams of ancient Babylon and flanking the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates just couldn’t be further from this pastoral, typically English scene. I don’t believe that any other single living being, plant or animal, could look more settled and at home than this unassuming, old man of the land.
I make many visits to this, my favourite haunt, over the next few months, each day a little different to the one before. The land becomes carpeted with ever more lush grass; sparklingly beautiful flowers lift their little heads towards the spring light; recklessly happy birds and insects busy about. The days like the seasons, progress.
Witnessing the changing days inspires a change in my own habits. For the first time I decide to observe the willow and his surroundings by night. By only the light of the partially covered moon, I make my way across the fields with a more cautious stride than normal. Every rustle and crunch seems amplified to abnormal degrees. A light, cool breeze kisses at my face. The scents of a million unidentifiable sources merge to intoxicate a weary mind. I smile to myself; to think that I so casually accept the daytime stimuli in relation to this, the night, amuses me. The hauntingly long walk relaxes my mind and body to such an extent that I approach the domain of the willow in somewhat of a trance. Only when the moon reveals itself fully from behind a cloud, do I raise my head to see a demigod of the natural world, bathed in heavens silver glow. The beautiful intensity of the moonbeams refracting on the willows fronds like molten silver, brings a tear to my eye once more. A hooting owl only adds to the surrealism of this nightly trip. It is at times of great passion; times of intense feeling, that one’s soul shows it true colours. Be it humility, anger, cowardice, love, or any one of a myriad other sensations, you are totally unable to hide that which is deepest inside of you. For me, like on that fated day: it is shyness in the presence of the divine. For what could have been hours or an instant, all that I was able to do was stare.
Having seen the willow in a light, (or to be more specific, moonlight), in its natural place in the world, something that so few other people ever will, I determine to continue my vigil with a broader scope to the when and how I pay my visits here.

Willow Dreams. Part one: Winter

There is something about the size of a snowflake that is directly proportional to the happiness I feel. A small punctuation mark sized flake, is equal to the feeling that maybe, just maybe, winter is truly on its way. The initial tremors, deep within my being, of a purity that only an all encompassing blanket of snow can bring. A longing for times past, of innocent days lost in childhood imagination.
It is with a sense of hope that I gaze out across the countryside. My favourite place in all the world lies just beyond my view. I can feel the anticipation rising inside of me as I walk across the dampened fields past small jumbles of various flora, until I reach my destination. Wiping the tiny snowflakes from my eyes, I see it standing there, framed by a million minuscule, lazily drifting, brilliant white specks of natural calm: the willow tree.
The tree sits by a gently meandering stream which casually flows, without seeming purpose, off through the pastoral vista. The dark water eddies and tumbles its way along, but so gently as if afraid it may cause offence to the willow’s lightly trailing tendrils. The tips of the willow’s bobbing limbs, if possible, even more magical in their golden, winter resplendence.
As I stand here breathing in the scenery, I watch a flotilla of little fish, possibly minnows, dart in and out of the trailing branches, oblivious to the lightly falling flakes of snow above. The minnows immediate concern seems not to be the weather nor me, but the statuesque, silent heron across from where I stand that would have remained unnoticed if not for a slight twitching of one of its long legs. The fish, not as stupid as public thought would lead us to believe, know to hide within the encompassing fronds of the willow’s trailing arms. The heron will not be feasting on a minnow lunch from this dining table.
The bird would continue to remain motionless in the water until it, like I, seemed to tire of the waiting game and instead took silent flight to a point approximately fifty yards further down the gurgling stream.

Winter arrives quickly after those first, inevitable sprinklings. The falling snowflakes now thickening to the size of adult thumb-prints. It is at this time that the snow starts to lay with more confidence upon the ground, refusing stubbornly to melt in the now colder climate.
I have made my way as always to the willow’s side. The thin carpet of snow, now covering the grassland, offering little resistance to my modest walk here. I pay particular attention at this time to the willow’s gnarled and course hide. Unlike most trees it is the collecting capabilities of those furrows and knots, that allows not only it’s flaxen limbs to become coated in a winter mantle but its trunk, also. Here and there, when the sun returns to shine down upon this riverside god, golden specks of slumbering life will glisten through this snowy blanket to enhance, rather than diminish, its beauty.
It is here upon another such radiant day that chaffinches and blackbirds skip haphazardly through the willow’s dangling petticoats. For seconds at a time the little birds disappear, only to reappear at some other point of its frilly mass.
Only when stood next to such a monster of nature, does it become clear as to just how large a tree the willow actually is. Due to its stooped nature, it finds itself rather like a powerfully built yet ageing man; you know that if he pulled his shoulders back he would be once again an imposing foe, but as he stands in front of you now, hunched and elderly, he is treated with an entirely different kind of respect. I like to think of the willow as more of the elderly gentleman than the young warrior. I think this best suits his position as a gentle watcher of the river, rather than a brooding sentinel on lookout duty.
The countryside is in essence a kindly, benevolent being. It provides us with majestic views, serene landscapes and a gentle way of life. The willow, too, encompasses these qualities only on a slightly smaller scale. Particularly when, like now, amongst the settling snow, it rises upwards like a hump on the land yet still remains totally identifiable in its winters garb.

Winter has now set in. It has been harder for me to reach my special place where the willow leans casually over the stream. Snowflakes the size of Elephants tears, fall continuously from the heavens. My feet sink so deeply into the snow that every step is heaved from footfall to footfall. My heart, however, surges upwards with the thrill of this now complete winter scene; the child in me now fully awakened.
I hardly recognise my favourite place. No golden limbs shine through the snow now. No restless waving from the willow’s branches as they once glided across the shallow water. Now the stream is frozen. The willow’s tendril-like branches have been locked in place, a semi-permanent prisoner to the natural world. If there are still fish below the frozen surface, I cannot see them. The frosted, semi-translucent swirls of glass-like ice, make the water below even more of a mystery than normal.
The longer I stay huddled in my winter jacket, shivering and teeth chattering, the greater my respect grows still for the willow’s silent tolerance to its winter surroundings. No matter how many millions of snowflakes fall upon its broad shoulders he continues to carry the burden with dignity and pride. Even the ice that now sheaths its many limbs, does nothing but enhance the willow’s credentials as one of natures deities.
I ponder, as I stand here, sinking ever deeper into the building blanket of snow, if the willow ever expected to witness weather such as this when it left its original Chinese homeland? Of course, even China has snow, but I doubt that the weather changes with the rapidity of the English seasons. Ironically, the willow that stands so majestically before me, couldn’t have fit any better into this English stream-side painting if God himself was applying the brush strokes.
Turning away from my giant friend, I shed a tear knowing that soon the snow will thaw as it always does after the falling of the largest snowflakes and the serene beauty of absolute winter will not return for another three seasons. The tear flows to my cheek then freezes. My waiting and watching will continue.


If I was a ripple, 

What ripple would I be?

Would I spread across a pond,

Or rage across the sea?

If I was a ripple,

Boundaries I’d abhor.

Would I lap against a riverbank,

Or break upon the shore?

If I was a ripple,

Would I find my way to you?

For you are what I ripple to,

My love, my life, my true.