Willow Weep For Me

Do you like willow trees? I love them. I had one that’s just the right shape planted in my garden. I’ll place a chair under the tree and read a book when the mood strikes, like right now. It’s too cold in winter, but from spring to summer the little new leaves shake so pleasantly in the wind.

Willow trees are vivacious. Leave them alone and they get overgrown. We have a landscaper come out and trim ours from time to time. It’s the same as giving a person a haircut: it looks fresh, the branches get lighter, and when it sways in the wind it looks like a young woman dancing the night away. Jumping, getting carried away, spinning around. Willows are slender and elegant, yet as the saying goes they don’t snap under the weight of snow. Limber trees are tougher than gnarly hulking ones.

There’s an old American song called “Willow Weep For Me.” I’m listening to Billie Holliday’s gorgeous rendition of it. In the song, someone who’s lover left them shares their pain with a willow tree. But why must the willow tree cry for someone? In English, the kind of tree we’d call a “drooping willow” is known as a “weeping willow.” “Weeping” can mean “to droop” in addition to crying. So when someone who was raised in the US or England sees a willow, they naturally think of it as crying. Compare that to a Japanese person’s first thought which is a ghost wailing. Imagery sure is different from culture to culture.

But Westerners still associate willows with something sinister. English author Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” is horror through and through. It’s the story of two young friends who are rowing down the Daube river, and are attacked by roaming willow trees when they camp on a sandbar for the night. The willow trees rustle in the dead of night, taking the friends one after the other. It’s closer to a novella than a short story, and it’s a bit old-fashioned, and the pacing is slow, but as you read it line by line it envelopes you and sends shivers down your spine. Willow trees seem to possess this strange life force that makes them so ripe to anthrpomorphize.

In China, women would break off a willow branch after a breakup and secretly leave it for their former lover. Flexible willow branches usually don’t snap, do it carried the meaning of sticking it out and getting back together. What a romantic gesture.

Whenever I arrive at the Nagoya station on the bullet train I can’t help humming “Willow Weep For Me.” They sell sweet rice jelly at the station, and in Japanese the name sounds like a creepy ghost howling through the willows. I’m such an idiot.