Thursday, July 30, 2015

Alison Syme, "Willow"

Willows have long been associated with death and mourning; but I was surprised to discover, from reading Alison Syme's Willow (2014), how far back this association goes.

At least to ancient Egypt, where the myth says Osiris was drowned in a willow casket, and where the sites where his dismembered pieces landed were all marked by willow groves. Here, a pharaoh makes an offering of willow branches in a temple of Hathor at a place called Nikentori, with means willow-earth.

Syme thinks the association of willows with both death and fertility springs from the ease with which willow twigs spring back to life if planted in the earth. Even, old, dried-out looking branches will sometimes take root and grow. These pictures show the planting and eventual appearance of the Auerworldpalast in Germany, a living structure made by sticking willow withies into the ground and letting them take root.

Across Europe there is a widespread ritual in which young men welcomed spring by whipping young women to encourage fertility, and except among the Romans – who used whips of wolf skin, hence lupercalia – this was almost always done with willow branches. In many places the branches had to be covered with catkins for the ritual to work. As with other pagan symbols of rebirth, the willow was attached to Easter; across eastern Europe what I call Palm Sunday is Willow Sunday.

Mythmakers, poets and painters have found the association irresistible. Besides their striking form, willows dwell in the liminal place along the water's edge, where they can overlook drownings like Ophelia's:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.
There, on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Climb'ring to hand, an envious sliver broke,
When down the weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. . . .
Some digital scholar figured out that willow is the plant most often mentioned in classical Chinese poetry, beating out even plum blossoms:
Whether the willow can love or not,
It is always dancing,
With a beauty that shakes the kingdom. . . .
Willow comes in hundreds of species, some of which hybridize freely, creating a muddle that has long frustrated taxonomists. True weeping willow is Silex babylonica, native to China. From there it spread across Asia, arriving in the Middle East by the medieval period and in Britain in the 17th century. It was instantly popular with gardeners all across Europe, since its lovely weeping form fit so perfectly with the mythical associations of willows.

Besides the myths, Syme also deals with the practical importance of willows, both in medicine (aspirin comes from willow bark) and in making baskets. Baskets were economically vital until recent times. One detail: during World War I, the British government commandeered the island's whole output of willow branches to make baskets for things like artillery shells and homing pigeons.

Willow is an interesting book, short and with lots of great pictures. I read it in a day and mostly enjoyed it.

Yet I found it vaguely dissatisfying. Yes, willows are woven all through the folklore of the northern hemisphere, from the groves of Hades where Persephone languished to Old Man Willow and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's best friend, Willow. But one could write an identical book about many other plants: oak, rowan, holly, rose, mistletoe, and probably many more. Instead of just a list of places that willows appear in myth and art, I want to understand the relationship between the mythic and natural worlds. Do all plants that are so prominent in the lives of traditional peoples cross into their stories? Are the same stories told about different species of tree and shrub, or do some species have stories all their own? What does it all mean?

The human fascination with the growth of plants runs deep. Plants feed us, shelter us, and spring from the ground in a miraculous way, growing from tiny seeds or cast off pieces. Sometimes, looking at plants and thinking about them, I have felt the power of rebirth in a deep way, and been filled for a few moments with something that felt like understanding, only to have it fade away a moment later, like a rainbow, or dew in the sun.

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