Winter treasure 4: The Willow Tree

Willow tree13/1/2018 By the front pond is a giant crack willow. The tree is magnificent; and its magnificence is greatest in winter. The twigs turn bright orange and its luminous canopy is the highlight of my garden on a sunny winter’s day. I watch it with curiosity every spring, thinking, surely its twigs can’t actually change colour; it must be an illusion created by the branches becoming gradually invisible beneath the growing leaves. But I swear that as soon as the buds start to break, the twigs lose their glow.

Friends and tree surgeons have all expressed their concerns about this tree and have urged me to either have it cut down completely, or pollarded. One large branch has already snapped off, a few years ago in a gale, and every time a new storm arrives I go outside the next morning to check it is still in one piece. Pollarding is a more acceptable option to me (in any case, cutting it down ‘completely’ would only turn it into a labour-intensive coppice), but despite the perennial anxiety it causes me, I cannot yet bring myself to lay a hand on its splendour.

The tree provides a home to many creatures, and I am sure that a scientific survey would yield huge numbers of inhabitants, past and present. My incidental observations have included a spotted woodpecker’s nest – the industry that went into excavating that hole! – used in following years by great tits. It was quite likely also the hatching tree of Winston the wood pigeon, though I never did manage to find his nest.

I use the willow as a beacon to locate my garden from across the valley, and it provides a living connection to my father. Whenever I look at it in winter, he is there, drawing my attention to its unsurpassed winter dress.

One day soon, probably, I will have to act; but until then it will continue to ‘lift up [my] heart from the clods’1.

1. ‘Out of Doors in February’, in The Open Air, Richard Jeffries (1885).