Of Willows and Elders

I scoped this place out before I even got here.  I took a bird’s eye view via Google maps and saw that our new home sits on a nice little triangle of land that has the potential to be rather wild.  I expected quite a few dandelions, some plantain, maybe some violets in the shade in springtime and queen anne’s lace along the fence rows in the summer.  But I arrived to find so much more.

There is a creek (or a crick) that runs along the side of our home.  It’s a modest little ditch, really, channeling the rain run-off from the streets of Fayetteville off to some other crick down the way.  It is the home to some algae, some trash from the streets (sonic styrofoam cups and Wal-mart shopping bags), and it looks like just the place for crawdads to play in.  Having the crick is nice in and of itself because I can fill up a bucket there to use to water the mint and dying sunflowers that the last tenant left for me.  But the crick has brought me many other things as well.  For this is where the willows grow.

I’ve always wanted to live near a willow.  I love their wandy limbs, their bladey leaves.  They grow thick like hair and drop such dense shade in their shadows.  Our crick is the home to several willows.  They wave at me every morning when I peek out of the dining room window.  “Hi, Rix,” they say.  “Come sit in our shade by the water.” Or “Our twigs make wonderful baskets.  You should give it a try.”

“I will, my willows,” I tell them.  and I want to.  I’ll cut them with love and dry them.  I’ll split them with my fingernails and learn to soak them and bend them into beautiful shapes.  I’ll make wicker hats to cover my bald head.  I’ll make little baskets to put my dandelion heads in when I go out of a morning to gather my breakfast.

And next spring and summer, I’ll have myself another treat, for right next to the willows, there stand a few dear elders.  You’ve heard of elderberry wine, I’m sure.  It is spoken of with reverence in old fashioned circles where aging women–mostly widows–sip cordial from tiny crystal glasses and talk of their neighbors and the weather and the roads.

Elders are really as magical as willows.  There is strong medicine (i.e., poison) in every part except the flowers and berries.  You should beware the leaves and limbs and bark and roots.  But the flowers and berries–so much magic is in them.  What a deep fragrance the flowers carry.  And they have a flavor to match, so I’m told.  Euell Gibbons and Steve Brill and Billy Joe Tatum have all raved about the flavor of those flowers.

I arrived too late in the year to try out the elder blow (as the flowers are called), but the berries were ripe by the time I got here.  They are such tiny things.  So deep a reddish purple that you’d have to call them black, they are the tiniest fraction of an inch wide.  They grow in the same spreading clusters that the flowers once flourished, and they are almost as delicate in appearance.

I squished one between my fingers, to see what lived under the skin.  The juice was purple, and there were several tiny seeds.  By the purple wateriness on my fingers, I thought they berries must be rather juicy to eat, so I tried a few.  But they are so tiny, and there are so many seeds in each berry that the experience consisted more of crunching the seeds that it did drinking the juice.  In fact, they seemed rather dry.  I didn’t know if it was due to the fact that it had been a dry hot summer, or if that’s just the way they taste.  “But they’re growing right along this running crick,” I reminded myself, “So they should have all the water they need.”

So I suppose the magic of those berries is not as civilized as the cultivated blueberry (which is what I was expecting).  I think it must be more like the magic of–well of the elderberry.  It is what it is in itself.  It doesn’t need to be a cultivated, over-sized civilized fruit to be magical.  In fact, I decided, it has got to be better that it is not that way.  Civilization made its berries to be fat and full of sugar.  The earth made her berries to be strong and full of exactly what they need to survive.

In the end, though, it didn’t really matter that the little elderberries had banished my expectations, because the birds ate them all up in a matter of days.  If I want any elderberry juice or wine or pancakes next summer, I’ll have to be pretty quick about my harvesting.  Lucky for me that they are right out my front door.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. i love the way you see the world.

    and the way you give me eyes.

    so should we name our future daughter willow or elderberry?

    Reply

  2. Reminds me of when you had that wild flower picking job. I can just remember that you were picked up in a truck and dumped in N.J. with a sythe or something and ran through the country fields gathering wildflowers. For 8 hours a day. It appealed to your inner hortaculturist. But wasn’t it HARD WORK????

    Reply

  3. It was hard work. We’d leave the Meat Packing District at 7 in the morning and get back around 7 at night. It was good money, tho. And it was lovely to get out of the City–a welcome change from ushering at the Ford Center (aka the Paris Hilton’s Daddy’s Theatre).

    But the hard work was fun. And there’s nothing like dropping your drawers in the shade of a sycamore tree on a hillside in norther NJ to take an early morning dump. You haven’t lived until you’ve felt the wind on your ass.

    Reply

  4. Rixie Rixie Quite Contrixy, How does your garden grow?

    After visiting my friend Richard’s house and seeing what an amazing garden he has built up over the past few years, I got really inspired.  I had spent some time the previous winter wondering how I could encourage some desirable herbs to grow in…

    Reply

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