Some systems of training – R.J. Stewart in ‘The Way of Merlin’ and the OBOD Ovate Course for example – ask us to develop a long term relationship with a specific tree. In my case it was a willow. At that time I had already made a willow wand from wood that had fallen off another tree, and though I don’t use wands or other tools much in circle casting, I do use this wand occasionally. It’s a wood that I find it easy to connect with.
My willow stands on the banks of the Avon at Bristol, in sight of the Clifton suspension bridge and the gorge. I was living within walking distance of it at the time. In terms of ‘head knowledge’ I wasn’t quite sure whether it was technically a weeping willow or a hybrid and decided it didn’t matter. Its branches certainly bowed to the flowing Avon water and to the ground. Through dedicated tree hugging practice I discovered a strong Nwyfre or life force, running up and down the tree. This was about the time of the Spring Equinox in a prematurely warm and burgeoning year. I had the pleasure of watching catkins and early leaves growing and of active bees. So I created an energetic bond with the physical tree, at the edge of a public park, greeting it and fare-welling it at each encounter without developing a detailed botanical knowledge.
I also did inner work with the tree, through visualization. Usually the visualization was an idealized version of the physical reality, prompting a slightly different set of feelings and reflections. There was one major difference. During a gale, the wind broke one of the major branches from the tree. I was very distressed to see that branch partly on the ground and partly hanging on to the rest of the tree by thin strands of bark. Then the branch got chopped off. I was in mourning. Yet my visualization didn’t change. At that level, the tree was still there and whole. And in fact the physical changed and grew new branches, not in quite the same place, to fill the gap of the big one that had gone. I supplied the distress and mourning. The tree simply adapted. Throughout the physical process, I felt little difference in its energy.
In the back of my mind I was also aware of traditional knowledge, both specific to Ogam lore and the more diffuse inheritance of popular tradition. I tended to hold this lightly, feeling imaginatively enriched whilst putting personal lived experience first. I do know that leaning against the tree whilst looking across the water to the bridge and the gorge were (and are) good for refreshment, reverie and lazy, half conscious forms of reflection. Out of this can come a creativity that doesn’t come from the willed marshaling of correspondences. And to be fair, the traditional willow correspondences say as much, when they talk of openness and receptivity to Otherworld and the inspiration of the Goddess. When I first knew the willow, it was at a time of fecundity – I’ve already mentioned the vibrancy of catkins and new leaves, the early appearance of bees. So I’m not surprised that William Anderson’s green man poem says, for the period running from 13 April to 10 May:
In and out of the yellowing wands of the willow
The pollen-bright bees are plundering the catkins;
‘I am honey of love’, says the Green Man
‘I am honey of love’, says he.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that in the Romanian Gypsy Festival of Green George (needless to say on 23 April) a young and leafy willow, already felled, is erected and decorated with streamers and ribbons. The community’s pregnant women gather around the tree, each laying out one piece of clothing. If, overnight a leaf falls from the tree on to the clothing, it is said that the goddess of the tree promises both an easy delivery and a gifted child.”
Such associations are in the background of my relationship to Willow if not the foreground. They touch my imagination, especially the parts that are nurtured by a sense of place and of history. They amplify my direct here-and-now experience, adding emotional texture to sensory immediacy. They extend what’s already there, in the tree, the setting, my presence, and our connection.