The weeping willow tree stands alone at the edge of the parking lot. In spring and summer, its feathered branches play with light. Now, in the cold, it sways its head of bare tresses.
In the Beforetimes, the willow held my morning. Waiting for the 466 bus to the metro, queuing commuters angled their bodies towards the stop sign up the block where the bus would eventually appear. We do this without realizing it, don’t we? Pin our attention on some absence we want filled by something beyond our control? It eventually occurred to me that fixating on that stop sign was a tragic waste of a few wide-open morning minutes. Holding my packed lunch and metro card, I turned to look across the street instead. The willow. Right there. It gave my gaze a bite of intrigue, some sustenance to carry me through the workday.
The dog and I have walked past the willow several times a day, nearly every day, all the years we’ve lived here. It’s easy to forget to look up. For eleven months, I have forgotten to look up. Isolation as public health mandate has become isolation as mental health adaptation. Last March, we stepped together into a hall of mirrors. We keep turning corners but somehow keep coming back to the self.
The willow is, as far as my very limited knowledge of dendrology goes, mature. It was already mature — almost majestic — when I moved here in 2013. Its heavy trunk scaled with bark splits into four substantial limbs a few feet from the ground. Each of those limbs splits again, then again, until it blooms into tendril and thread 50 feet up.
In this part of the neighborhood, on its swampy patch of the greenway next to the parking lot, it commands a solitary spot. It holds up the sky.
Not too far from the base of the willow is a lump in the grass with the remains of a neighbor tree. I imagine that after cutting down whatever used to live there, they had someone come back to grind down its stump then cover the scar with mulch. It might have died of old age. It’s just as likely that the HOA applied its ruthless criteria and deemed it a threat. Did someone plant it too close to the parking lot, to the road, to the patrons of the 466 waiting in the morning chill for the hiss of brakes? Maybe they found it charming when it was small. Maybe they watched with growing unease as it burgeoned, becoming something uncontrollable, something with a plan of its own.
Over here on this side of the street where I live, at the edge of an almost identical parking lot, a black walnut tree used to stand. The otherwise unremarkable tree enjoyed a particularly fecund stretch each year when it dropped its giant fruit, denting car hoods and stinking up the place. Despite the prime location, most people avoided parking there. The condo association voted last year to take it out. The walnut tree vanished during an aggressive, almost Puritanical eradication of brambles, shrubs, and trees throughout our complex — anything too feral got the axe. Into the denuded spaces, they plunked down lampposts and benches. I suppose the idea is that no one who sits in them will get a walnut to the head. Anyway, no one sits in them.
Do you suppose the willow misses its neighbors — the mystery tree that stood so close, or the black walnut across the road? Maybe I’m foolish to anthropomorphize, but it seems the willow must feel their absence. Whatever light and water used to flow down through its neighbors has a different volume now, a different flavor.
Weeping willow trees are considered invasive. We add this insult to the injury of planting it here where it is doomed to antagonize us in its attempt to live exactly as it is designed. The willow’s shallow roots can spread up to 3 times the height of the tree — from its base to its canopy.
Did I start this by saying the weeping willow tree stands alone? That isn’t right. The willow is connected. It is the living definition of connection. The willow is not merely standing up over there, out on the surface where it occasionally comes into focus in my distracted human gaze.It is here. It is here everywhere: underneath the squares of concrete that lead the dog and me through the neighborhood. Just beneath the paved places where the Beforetimes commuters awaited the 466. The willow’s furred tendrils entwine with the sweetgum that drops its thorny pods on the sidewalk in October. With the dogwood at the edge of the park. With the miniature holly trees studded with glossy, spiked leaves and crimson berries. In the luscious dark, the willow’s roots wind through the tenacious rhizomes of whatever species of grass the diesel-fueled landscaping team tries to bring to heel every Wednesday.
The willow may have escaped my attention for a time, but that’s my failing, not the willow’s. It’s so easy to hold something apart, to forget how vast the life on the other side of the reflective surface where the self plods forever back into the self. My little condo on the second floor of this building may be in a different complex with a different street name, but lay the willow on its side three times, and it reaches here. Under these seemingly solid floors that hold up the chair where I sit typing, it is burrowing through the rich, cold depths towards nourishment, towards its siblings and companions. It is carrying on its untamed life.
The willow drew me to it on those mornings waiting for 466. Now, despite the fog of self-absorption and the allure of a well-defined boundary, it draws me back again. When at first I notice the willow this time around, it appears alone and bare in its circle of black mulch. But that’s not it at all. The willow does not suddenly become itself when I see it. It has been here all along, offering itself. It is here seeking and sipping and thriving, it is here drawing on all the decomposition, it is pulling up nutrients from what is left of its lost neighbors whose remains become itself.
It sometimes feels like we are only here if we are seen. But I am here to tell you right now, even if I cannot see you through this separateness, that you are here. You are alive beneath and all around here, you are moving through me and through this story. Your pulse. Your core, your gait, the way your edges play with light. You are in me and in all the dear ones who know the sound of your voice and your small pleasures, your generous hugs and your broken heart. Your bad puns, your pet peeves, your infectious enthusiasm for odd bits of knowledge, your gestures, your plans, your arguments, your worries, your lovely face. We carry each other. We are each other’s roots. Your story holds my story. My story holds yours.
You are the one lifting my gaze the mornings when something nudges me back to connection. You help me remember to look up. You help me feel my way back down. To us.
Maybe you don’t know when you will next bloom. The thing is, you already are. Even when it feels like you sit alone in a swampy field next to a parking lot, even when everything up on the surface is too bare and too close and too far all at once. You, my dear one, are part of everything.
And we are in this together.