First it was blue birds in my yard. Now, pussy willow shrubs and trees have me in a frenzy, searching woodlands, swamps and highway banks for branches covered in tiny fuzzy catkins.
“You’re addicted to pussy willows,” my daughter observed. “No, I think I’m obsessed,” I said. “There’s a difference.”
I’m not sure what it is about these early spring bloomers that sets hearts a flutter, but I love pussy willows, so named because their furry blooms resemble little cat’s feet. Their appeal is universal. They remind us of hikes in the woods, Easter egg hunts, spring bouquets on Grandma’s dining room table, and dried twigs in clear vases on teachers’ desks.
I’m not talking about pristine pussy willows in bundles in the floral section at the supermarket, though those are lovely too. I’m talking about pussy willows in the wild: sprouting in creek banks, wetlands and among tangles of weeds on roadsides. They’re easy to spot if you look up. The trouble is most of us spend our time looking straight ahead, failing to see what’s around us.
I spotted my first pussy willow tree last week. Driving through a friend’s neighborhood, I noticed a large pussy willow had blown over in a storm and was on its side. It was a beautiful tree, with branches covered in thousands of silvery-grey silky soft puffs resembling fur. Whoever named the pussy willow was a genius. With its fuzzy blooms, it really does look like a cross between plant and animal.
I hastily tore off a few branches, but vowed to return with my clippers the next day. And though I was tempted to keep my find to myself, I did the right thing. I shared my discovery with my friend Barbara, who descended upon it within an hour of my text. Suburban women are like vultures when it comes to plant road kill. It doesn’t take long to discover it, and go in for the spoils.
I’ve lived in Guilford, CT., for 15 years, and never noticed pussy willows until now. They came on my radar in late January when my older sister and I were discussing forcing branches. She forced pussy willow from her backyard shrub for the state garden show competition, walking away with a first prize blue ribbon.
“You know, they grow in the wild,” I said. Of course, she knew. But I had forgotten all about them. Growing up, we had at least three pussy willows in a stand of trees in our side yard. They were fairly tall, interspersed among several white birches, assorted vines, prickers and moss.
That area was an oasis for kids. The pussy willows were great for gathering into bouquets, while the birch branches provided their own entertainment. We’d break off a few birch twigs, and whittle off an inch or two of bark, exposing the flesh and sucking on it. It tasted like birch beer, not necessarily my favorite soda flavor, but a delightful natural treat.
A series of storms destroyed the pussy willows and birches, marking the end of an era. Our next door neighbor replaced them with an evergreen privacy screen, lacking the charm and grace of the previous inhabitants. The pussy willows and birches invited exploration, while the evergreens demanded privacy. It’s amazing how much you can say with landscaping.
With our charming trees gone, the side yard held no interest. We gravitated to the other side of the property, where a level clearing at the foot of a slope became home to our swimming pool. Though many complain that pools don’t make a lot of sense in New England because the season is so short – Memorial Day to Labor Day unless it’s heated – our pool was a home run.
Between swimming, pool parties and the upkeep, the pool kept us busy and out of mom’s hair. And staying out of mom’s hair is a major accomplishment when you’re one of seven kids who could find a way into mom’s hair without even trying.
Why pussy willows and why now? I have no idea. It may signal a general slowing down of my mind and body with one kid away at college, and another about to turn 17. It’s amazing how much time, energy and attention children consume without us realizing it. Or it may just be my first step toward the old age home. Only time will tell.
With my son and the whirlwind that is he away, my mind has slipped into another gear. It’s as though the world’s an I Spy picture, and I’m just now able to discern things hiding in plain sight. With him managing his own life (sort of), and my daughter with one foot out the door, there’s space to notice things that I was unaware I wasn’t noticing.
My fascination with pussy willows is a little like the 5-year-old boy gazing at the large fish tank at the pediatrician’s office last week. As his mother scrolled her I-Phone in the receptionist’s line, he tugged at her arm to look at the fish. After three or four failed attempts to coax her, she came over and looked for about 20 seconds before getting back to her phone.
I remember my son at that age, and was tempted to shout, “Put the damn phone down and look in the tank. You will be longing for these days in 15 years, begging for a chance to find the big fish in the tank with your little guy.” But I didn’t because that would be weird and extremely inappropriate. Besides, I was exactly like her when my son was 5 – trying to grab moments of time between the craziness.
But the kids are onto something. Years ago, I wrote a piece about laughter. Did you know that most kids laugh about 50 times a day, while adults average a piddly three? I’m afraid there are some people who never crack a smile. Think about that one the next time you opt for the I-Phone instead of the fish tank.
Kids are the perfect height for noticing the wonders of the world: fish, frogs, ducks, turtles, birds, bunnies, lizards, Johnny jump-ups, praying mantis, grasshoppers, butterflies and dragonflies. Kids look up, down, and all around. They make snow angels and roll gigantic balls for snowmen, while adults fret about downed trees and clearing roads.
Kids get it, they really do. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that we were kids, but we were. And maybe that’s the point of the pussy willows. They remind us that the kid is still in there. We just forget, and maybe that’s why some adults we encounter – including ourselves at times – are so nasty, miserable and envious of other people. We’ve completely forgotten about pussy willows.
They’ve been there the whole time. We just need to look.