Josna Rege

205. Weeping Willow

In 1960s, 2000s, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Nature, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 27, 2013 at 12:04 am


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.

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  1. I am so sleepy and on my way to bed. This is such a nice post and the picture of the tree reminds me of a weeping willow in a friend of my mother’s yard when we lived in Idlewild. The tree was near the lake so I’m sure it didn’t bother the pipes. I remember the woman, Annis, said once how she hated the tree because it was a “dirty” tree. It dropped leaves all over the yard. I thought that was so odd. There we were in the middle of the north woods, by a beautiful lake and why worry about leaves? They eventually all blew away anyway, if you let them alone. The sky is so beautiful in your photo.

    • Thank you, Kristin. I was worried that it was too sentimental. That place you used to live sounds idyllic, like its name. Yes, it’s funny how a natural thing like a tree shedding leaves cn be considered “dirty.” In their old house my parents used to have a wild cherry tree at the top of their driveway, and their upstairs tenants wanted it chopped down because the ripe cherries fell on their car and stained it.
      And yes, isn’t that sky lovely? It was this very evening. Good night. (And now, having posted X, you’re free for two whole days!)

  2. This was beautifully written Josna. What a magnificent tree, and the family memories you associate with it are to be treasured.

    • Yes, Julie, the tree stands alone and does its thing, while my associations are the ornaments I hang on it. Thank you for visiting.

  3. Yes. A very beautifully-written, and touching, piece. I think the powerful, water-sucking, tree species, e.g. oak, poplar, willow tend to have to be planted at least 18m away from a dwelling built on shrinkable clay subsoil. Magnolias are low water consumers by comparison.
    At one of my work places, a Goat Willow has grown just inside a high retaining wall (grade II listed) and – as it leafs up – the season’s water guzzling will start. This particular tree will have to come down. However, my neighbours, at home, were prevented from felling a spectacularly beautiful, mature, silver birch by dint of the fact that we live inside the local conservation area!

    • Wow, you are an expert on these matters! So the roots of these water-guzzlers will move right through clay. I will have to look up Goat Willow; can’t distinguish among the different varieties. I love the order of Britain’s regulations: Grade II listed wall (historic?), conservation protections against indiscriminate tree-felling. I love silver birches. Thanks very much for your comments.

      • I work at at an old manor (grade II listed) which has hundreds of old-fashioned roses & an arboretum. I prune the roses & have a Royal Forestry cert. in Arboriculture. I can talk for England about our listed, buttressed, retaining wall & its drainage. E

        • What a fascinating job and set of skills! Somehow it seems all of a piece with “Mother.”

  4. I have always loved weeping willows. They seem so romantic!
    I remember a spectacular one at the top of the lovely curving driveway up to our dear friend
    Mrs. Bottomley’s home in Shillong. As you might guess, she was English and used to have us to tea and serve home grown strawberries with clotted cream in the Spring.
    I remember a particular fete which was held under her weeping willow in aid of the UCC – Union Christian College for which my mother held a weekly sewing party for all the ladies of Shillong. They would gather and make all sorts of lovely sale-able items and once or twice a year there would be this fete where the town would gather to buy them and the money would be presented to the UCC at the end of the year.
    So this one year my mother decided to borrow a friend’s waffle iron and along with ours, she made batches and batches of fresh waffles and served them with large dollops of
    chicken-a-la-king or butter and maple syrup.

    As all these things were foreign delicacies in Shillong, they made a huge hit and netted the work party a huge sum that year. I still remember serving them with her under the lovely old weeping willow at the top of the drive in Mrs. B’s garden. Wonderful memory!

    • Lovely memory. I wonder how old you were then, Marianne. See what I mean about the way we hang our hearts on weeping willow trees?

  5. I loved weeping willows when I first saw pictures of them as a child, so I was thrilled, when I was 10 years old, to move to a house that had one in the back yard. It was young and small, but still quite pretty, and it gave a romantic twist to a life that felt otherwise suburbanly barren of anything magical. Your post inspired me to check on Google Earth to see if it’s still there. Unfortunately, although there are a lot more trees in the yard than in my day, the willow is not among them. Perhaps they discovered it was too near the house.

    I love your final image of the willow connecting you across the planet! Lovely.

    • Now that I think back, Sarah, I realize how much trees have graced us with their presence throughout our lives, something I have taken for granted. Particular trees have made such a difference, trees I have climbed swung on, shaded under, picked fruit from; trees without which, as you said so eloquently of the willow in your back yard, our lives would have been “suburbanly barren of anything magical.” Sorry your willow isn’t still there; though, knowing willows, its descendants have already spread far and wide.

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