There is a tavern in the town, in the town,
And there my dear love sits him down, sits him down,
And drinks his wine ’mid laughter free,
And never, never thinks of me.
[Chorus] Fare thee well, for I must leave thee,
Do not let the parting grieve thee,
And remember that the best of friends must part, must part
Adieu, adieu, kind friends adieu, adieu, adieu,
I can no longer stay with you, stay with you,
I’ll hang my harp on a weeping willow tree,
And may the world go well with thee.
— F. J. Adams, 1891
I don’t remember having seen any weeping willows in my childhood in India, and knew of them only through There’s a Tavern in the Town, a song my mother used to sing. Although she would never have said so to us children, she was probably homesick for England when she sang these old songs. That hidden emotion and the longtime association of the weeping willow with parted lovers imbued my image of the tree with sentiment, deep, but non-specific.
It was not until we immigrated to the United States that weeping willows became a common feature of the cultivated landscape, and not until we moved out to the farm in Winchendon and started homesteading ourselves that we learned of the practical dangers of planting them anywhere near a house. Although the tree is beautiful—one of the first to turn a delicate yellow, then green, in the early spring—and useful for preventing erosion, it craves water, and its large, thirsty roots gravitate toward septic pipes and storm drains, work their way in through cracks and crevices, and soon block them.
When my parents moved into their current house, there was a small weeping willow down in the far corner of their back field, in the lowest-lying part of their property. It was well away from the house and its roots would be likely to gravitate down and ever farther away, so they let it be. It thrived there, and now, twenty years later, it has filled out the entire corner and grown up to its full, mature height.
The weeping willow (salix babylonica) is native to northern China. Being highly desirable, it was traded along the Silk Route to south-west Asia and Europe, and has now spread worldwide. The tree at my parents’ is now so large that it can be seen from the other side of the world. Here’s how we found out:
My nephew Pinakin came to the U.S. from India for his doctoral studies. When he visited us for the first time and I was driving him over to meet my parents, he asked me excitedly if he could navigate. “You see,” he explained, “I’ve looked you all up on Google Earth.” Sure enough, Pinakin gave me flawless directions across town. When we drew up at the house, he exclaimed with satisfaction, “It’s all here: the house, the fields, and the big tree in the corner!” That weeping willow can now be spotted from India via satellite! I can’t quite describe what that made me feel: the tree that has so long been a symbol of parting and loss is now a landmark that our distant loved ones can seek out, zoom in on, and find us by.
Earlier this evening, in the gathering dusk, when I gazed on that tree clothed in its delicate Spring green, with the last rays of the setting sun lighting the adjacent clouds on fire, I thought of my mother in India half a century ago, long before the days of satellites, singing of her distant loved ones. When I was a child, I thought that the woman in “There’s a Tavern in the Town” was singing, “I’ll hang my heart [not harp] on a weeping willow tree.” I still think that my version describes best what we have hung on that tree, that continues to seek water and light wherever it is transplanted, regardless of the human heart.