Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Wind in the willows


When we bought this acre of hillside above Dingle Bay, thirty years ago, is was rough grazing -- grass, gorse and heather. Not a tree to be seen. But there was a flat spot, suitable for a house, from which the view was breathtaking. We sold off an insurance policy, turned over a few thousand dollars to a local farmer, and the rest is history.

When we could afford it, we built a tiny cottage, and there it sat, forlorn and naked to the elements. M. began her long battle with the wind, which, it seems, is never ceasing. What plants went in during our summer sojourns were blown away by winter gales. Then she gave a local nurseryman 200 pounds to plant 200 trees (ah, those were the days!). Little trees, of course, that hardly raised their wind-battered heads above the grazing. Some were proper trees with roots -- sycamores, alders, rowans, hazels. Half at least were willow sticks stuck in the ground. She tended them, counted the survivors from year to year, whispered encouragement. Today our hillside looks fairly domestic, with copses and bowers and a bit of protection from the wind for some proper gardening. It only took half a lifetime.

Most successful of all were the willows, those scrawny sticks jammed into the soil. They dodge and weave with the wind, adapting their shape to the direction of the prevailing gales, all lithe and limber. They sprawl about with a wonderful insouciance, as if they have all the time in the world on their hands and don't give a damn about a gardener's designs.

In ancient Ireland, trees were protected by law. The "nobles of the wood" were oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, pine and apple. We have few of those. The "commoners of the wood" were alder, willow, hawthorn, rowan, birch, elm and cherry. Fell a mature willow and you'd be fined one milch cow. Below the "commoners" were the riffraff of the wood, the bracken, gorse, heather and bramble that would drive us off the hill if we let it. M. protects her patches of heather with the ferocity of ancient law, but the bracken, gorse and bramble she consigns to the hungry lash of my strimmer.

Certainly, each of our willows is worth a milch cow, not only for the protection they give from the wind, but because of their perfectly fitting name. Willow. Willow. One of the most beautiful words in the English language. What woman would not want to be called willowy. Salix, the scientific Latin, is not nearly so euphonious, although salley (an Irish name for willow) captures a bit of the feminine quality of the tree. Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet, wrote Yeats. Indeed.