Friday, August 7, 2015

“The Willow Never Quits”

Crown of American pussy willow next to limestone cliff.
On Wednesday I walked to the rim of the small canyon just east of town to check the willow I'm following.  At first it looked like nothing had changed since my visit in early July.  But a closer view confirmed that time is passing.
The tops of the leaves are darker, and the undersides more glaucous (blue-gray).  They weren’t so bi-colored back in June when I was trying to identify the tree.  And many are now looking a bit shabby, with brown spots and ragged edges.  Yes, time is passing.  Make haste to enjoy what’s left of summer ... it ends early in Wyoming.
“leaves obviously lighter below from glaucescence or hairs”
Signs of the times:  leaves are tattered and worn.  Days are noticeably shorter too.

It was different down below – there had been a major change.  Last month, several days of rain sent a creek down the normally-dry canyon.  A waterfall off the cliff behind the willow filled a small pond.  Now the canyon’s dry again.  The pond is gone though the ground's still damp.
The shady nook – still a bit of mud and a few mosquitos.
This spot is so different from the rest of the canyon.  It’s tucked away in an alcove, hidden by a large juniper.  It's green, shady and cool, and always feels secret or magical.
The leaves at the base of the willow – in shade – looked healthier.
I was absorbed in making abstract compositions out of limestone ledges and willow branches when I heard muttering from deep in the shady nook.  But when I investigated, I only saw more branches and rocks.  My first reaction was:  fairies! elves!

It grew louder and more clear, a strong male voice.  “I see you are an admirer of willows.  I’d like to discuss with you the important matter of a state pseudonym.”  Obviously this was neither a fairy nor an elf, but a ghost!
“The willow seems singularly appropriate as our pseudonym.  The Willow by its vigor speaks of fertile soils, sweet flowing streams, fresh lakes and mountain snows.  Wyoming should be The Willow State.”
“Whenever it has been presented, the suggestion has met with spontaneous and hearty approval.  The idea has been presented in high schools, in college classes, before luncheon, social and civic clubs and in Scout camps.  It always aroused enthusiasm and this often found expression in the yell:
Rah-rah-rah!  Rah-rah-rah!
The Willow State!  The Willow State!
The Willow State!

This was hard to believe.  Was this the ghost of a crackpot?  Obviously he was well-educated, but his ornate high-sounding language was off-putting, and some of his facts were just plain wrong.
“1.  No other state in the Union has so many different kinds of Willows.”
California and Alaska have more, I explained [later I realized that in his time Alaska was not yet state].
“2.  No other plant is so universally distributed within our borders.”
Quite a few are more universally distributed, for example dandelions, wheat grasses and locoweeds.  But he was absolutely right – there are many Willow Creeks in Wyoming – at least one in every county and often more.
“3.  Willows are known and loved by everyone.  Even children recognize them at once and are charmed by the richness of their foliage, the gracefulness of their habit, the splendid contrasting colors of stems and branches in the long winter season, and the beauty they give to the vernal landscape when the ‘pussy-tail’ flower clusters bedeck the otherwise naked branches as Spring resumes her gentle sway.”
The kids I know are charmed by smart phones not willows, but I didn’t say anything.  He seemed to be ignoring me anyway.  He continued with more “facts upon which the appropriateness of the name rests:”
“4.  The Willow is the first to herald by the opening of its fuzzy buds, the advent of spring, and the last to lay aside its golden or purpling autumn dress.”
Indeed, my willow bloomed in February.  This fall I will watch it closely to see if it really is the last to lay aside its purpling autumn dress.
February:  male pussy willow flowers and snow.
“5.  The Willow worthily symbolizes Wyoming.  In it we find typified the spirit and character of our people.  It is strong – it bends to necessity but does not break.  It is aggressive, continually advancing into the new stations and occupying the fields.  It is social, having learned the art of living in harmony with others of its kind and with competitors of every sort …”
Wait a minute! … this is the only willow for miles!!  I think it’s one of those rugged individualists that are so common in our state!!!  I was shouting, but it had no effect.  I’d had enough.  I picked up my pack and left.  As I walked down the canyon, the words grew faint and finally unintelligible.
“… its common name is euphonious and simple ... its short staccato scientific name (Salix) suggests the snap and vigor of our people ... their spirit and dogged spssssssss s s s .... 

~~ •• ~~

Oddly, it all seemed vaguely familiar.  Yesterday I went to the Rocky Mountain Herbarium at the University to check plant identifications for my iNaturalist project.  When I signed the guestbook, I suddenly remembered!  Among the memorabilia nearby was an article published on August 27, 1924, in The Branding Iron (student newspaper):

“Dr. Nelson Suggests Pseudonym of ‘Willow State’ for Wyoming”

The ghost in the canyon was Aven Nelson, Father of Wyoming Botany.  But even though he was one of our most prominent citizens in his day, his campaign failed.  We became the Equality State instead, as Wyoming was the first territory to grant female suffrage and the first state to allow women to vote, serve on juries and hold public office.  But Nelson hasn't given up ... he's still fighting for the Willow.
“On frigid, rocky mountain top or in fertile valley, some member of the Willow team fights on, whether bent by furious blasts, bitten by browsing beasts or smashed by an avalanche of sodden snow – THE WILLOW NEVER QUITS”
Aven Nelson in the field (AHC).

This is my contribution to the August tree following gathering, kindly hosted by Lucy of Loose and Leafy.


  1. A magical encounter!
    Happy Tree Following!

  2. A very creative nod to your tree. I think summer ends earlier in Wyoming than in Wisconsin. We often have lovely weather through September. The only problem with September is the yellow jacket hornets! Enjoy each day. :)

    1. Thanks, PP. September is pretty nice here too. Occasional cold and wind isn't so bad ... it's the looming end that gets to me.

  3. Thank you so much, Hollis, for your kind comment. I was particularly interested (and somewhat surprised on the first count, given our different locations) to hear both that you have the boxelder in your part of the world and that you call the keys "whirlybirds"! (or samaras). What a fascinating, if strange, willow encounter! We had our picnic lunch in the shade of a pollarded willow today, in the company of Longhorn beetles (which we saw) and the Goat moth (which we were only told about, but failed to see).

  4. Charming post!! I was remembering your willow blooms as your ghost was talking about the early blooms. Now, we all must wait for autumn's leaf change and see if the ghost is correct. What a fun post!

  5. What a brilliant way to tell a story.
    I see from Wikipedia that Wyoming is known as the Equality State (official),
    the Cowboy State, Big Wyoming or Wonderful Wyoming. The Willow State would be a far more attractive name!
    I'm enjoying visiting your tree (and hearing voices) - seeing the creek change is like one of those time-lapse nature films, with the seasons all crammed into a few seconds.
    All the best :)

    1. thanks, sb. Hasn't Lucy set us off on wonderful adventures?! I stumbled upon that story during some recent research on Aven Nelson's life ... what luck :-)

  6. There's signs of autumn appearing here in the UK too - enjoy the rest of the summer :)

  7. Great post! True that 'the willow never quits', they are so tough!
    (seems that I can only comment now with my google account)