Homage to weeping willows

September 22, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

DSC_0182So in my last post I told you all about my recent flying visit to New Zealand…well, more about my encounters with SmartGate. I went to Christchurch actually. I haven’t been there for well over 15 years and don’t really recall my visit there. I suspected I would be hard-pressed to get a decent soy chai latte. I imagined the streets would be deserted because everyone would be tucked up in bed by 6.00pm. I imagined a dreary, unsophisticated city.

Wrooooooong! This is the prettiest city I’ve seen in a long time, with plenty of cafes, tasty food and really friendly people. But the first thing I noticed was the vegetation – lots of trees with soft foliage; gradations of green from dark to lime green and golden yellow; a stunning Botannical Garden smack bang in the middle of the city; and to my delight – plenty of weeping willows.

When I was a kid, there was a beautiful, large weeping willow in the next street. I’d play there with friends, feeling safe and enfolded by the canopy of the willow and its gently cascading, feather-veined foliage. We’d make mud pies in the shade of the tree on lazy afternoons after school. Willows are found on moist soil, so there was plenty of opportunity to make those pies and swing on the branches.

Over the years, I’ve often thought of that tree, which was sadly cut down I guess as it seemed to have disappeared by the 1990s. The weeping willow is my favourite tree and I search in vein for them. I see sad relics occasionally as my train snails speeds across the landscape. The soft foliage has gone and the one I’m thinking of is a dried up specimen, presumably because it can’t draw water from the soil due to the dry conditions of our continent.

So my visit had me contemplating weeping willows and how vegetation can affect a culture. Warning: unstructured thinking ahead.  To what extent do you think a harsh landscape that is populated mainly by dull green eucalypts (ie Australia) affects the people inhabiting that landscape?

I’m about to make a generalisation, I know.. but…the Australian accent is pretty broad and often harsh. Australians can be a tough bunch who are quite willing to openly swear right, left and centre; drink till they drop; dabble in a bit of road rage or a spot of fighting at the local pub. Our arid continent brings out the fighting spirit in many Australians.

Contrast this with Christchurch, which is a bit like being transported back to Oxford or Cambridge, with its English village feel. The Botannical Gardens boast a stunning array of trees and magnificent pink and white blossoms. A spin around this park-like atmosphere decreases the stress levels. Weeping willows abound. Cantabrians (Christchurch is in the region of Canterbury) are polite; incredibly helpful and relaxed. The city is easy to get around and easy to walk really. People can live 10 mins away in a suburb, such as Fendalton, and get to work easily. The city and suburbs are surrounded by soft, willowly, graceful trees and shrubs. It’s a feast of green, gold and red tones.

So I reflected on the extent to which vegetation can actually shape a city’s inhabitants. Is it a marginal influence? Is it a subconscious absorption?  How do trees affect neighbourhood relationships and quality of life? If there is an abundance of trees in an urban area, is there less urban violence? Is the unsociable nature of people in cities related to a lack of trees and plants? Are there stronger communities when there are plenty of trees around?

A spot of research shows that a number of studies suggest community engagement can be strengthened and crime and graffiti reduced by parks and urban vegetation.  I would say that public spaces with trees, such as Botanical Gardens, attract people – who stroll, play with their kids, have picnics, sight other humans, talk with others and so on. Trees are attractors. A Forestry Report (University of Illinois, 1996) explores how trees impact on social ties. And there’s a heap of resources here about the influence and benefits of vegetation in urban areas.

Where I grew up (Sydney’s upper North Shore area), there are still more trees than other areas of Sydney but that willow tree has long gone and the tree-lined street where I lived is far less tree-lined. Every spring, the whole street boasted pink and white blossom trees – neighbours would complete for best blossom tree. They were cut down in the 1980s from memory and when I last drove down the street of my childhood (2008) there was simply a few small shrubs outside the McMansions that now jostle for position. The whole street has lost the beauty and character I remember.

But back to the weeping willow. It has loomed large in mythology surrounding trees and has long been considered the tree of tears, sorrow and enchantment. The Ancient Greeks associated the willow and its deep roots with fertility and would place a slender willow branch in the bed of an infertile woman, hoping for the best.  Psalm 137 reads: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps.” (I can’t imagine harps being hung on the fragile branches and there’s a suggestion that it was poplars that figured in this Psalm).

Weeping willows were unknown in Europe until they were imported from China at the beginning of the eighteenth century (and of course, this beautiful tree is commemorated in Chinese willow pattern plates). Legend has it that the first weeping willow in Britain was grown by Alexander Pope, who is said to have planted a budding wand from a basket containing figs that a Turkish lady admirer had given him. There are so many myths surrounding these trees that I plan to research more, it’s really quite fascinating.

But meanwhile: take a moment to look around your urban area. Any weeping willows? Is there a lack of trees and greenery? An abundance?  Are you like me – you need to live near trees? How do you think a lack of trees affects society?

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. RunningAnt  |  September 22, 2009 at 6:39 am

    Here in the south of South Africa, weeping willows are a declared invader species, being a threat to our very diverse and beautiful indigenous plant life. If you have ’em, you’ve got to chop ’em down.

    In fact we don’t have many trees in our landscape (if there are trees they are usually invaders); instead we have a magnificent diversity of plants that generally you can see over.

    Reply

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