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Willows and Pines

Weeping willow trees aren’t sad at all. They may look like they have been crying, with their branches hanging down gently, but they are actually quite cheerful. In fact, they are beautiful, and gentle, and sticky. They smell dark and sweet if you hold then close enough and when you rub the almond shaped leaves in between your fingers, they get sticky too. The leaves are all veiny and prickly, but most of all, they are sticky. You can stick them to your clothes, or your feet, or anywhere really. They don’t stay for too long, but that’s okay. The fun is in the sticking rather than the staying.

When I was five, I loved weeping willows more than any other tree in the whole entire world. In my mind, they were far superior to any old oak or birch tree; willow trees were just more wonderful. My five-year-old heart felt that they were simply better for fairy adventures and princess castles. The possibilities for enjoyment are endless with a child’s overactive imagination. Frequently, I would beg my mother to let me go and play in the willow trees by our home, and more often than not, I got my way. At least I was experiencing the beauty of nature, right?

I and my Ayi would go to a small park where the willow trees were, and there I would play with reckless abandon. I had known my Ayi for as long as I could remember, she was our house helper and my honorary aunt; she was basically a member of our family. My childhood would have been incomplete without her; she brought so much joy to everyday actions. She was a source of comfort and safety. In our little park, she watched me talk to the trees and smiled at the antics of a child. If I ran too far, my Ayi would call to me in English or Mandarin, and I would come flitting back to the nearest willows cheerfully. Entire worlds were created and detailed as I skipped here and there. I was the queen of this leafy utopia, and the willows were my palace, throne, and kingdom all rolled into one. The light danced in my eyes and the breeze filled my lungs. I would run in between the lilting branches and wrap the tendrils around myself in a way I was certain was quite romantic. Leaves would get stuck in my hair and poke their sharp stems into my head, but I couldn’t have cared less. All I cared about was the delightfully warm feeling of sunshine on my face and the fullness of life surrounding me.

When I was feeling especially creative, I would take a handful of leaves and send them swirling down a stream at one end of the park. I loved the stream because of the funny, mossy smell it gave off that caused my nose to scrunch up whenever I smelled it. I would stick my hands in the slow, warm water and gently let my leaves go. Then, with all the delight of a five-year-old, I would chase them down the length of the stream until they were gone for good. Willow trees and water make a fantastic combination, as you can do many things with both. I pressed my wet handprints to the cool bark of a willow tree and then dried them off with the swaying branches. The smell of wet leaves is almost tangible; it tastes like peace and quiet. Sometimes I carefully brought a handful of water to the base of a willow tree in an attempt to help it to grow tall and graceful.

Weeping willow trees make the most perfect sound. They rustle, and creak, and breathe in the most beautiful way. The wind whips through them and blows everything about making the world seem magical. I quickly learned that even if the wind was absent, I could induce that lovely willow sound by running my hands through the branches like I was playing a wind chime. And in a way, I was. I made my own music, and that was beautiful to a five-year-old girl. Even if your orchestra only has the instruments of nature, it can create something amazing. It was truly enchanting. To be among trees is always captivating, but being among willows as a child is even more so. Trees just seem to have a certain magic around them.

Eventually my Ayi would bring me home, and I would have to content myself with merely looking at the willow trees from our fifth story apartment window. Whenever I imagined stories while staring at those trees, they were typically ones about lovely tea parties and falling in love, just the kind you would most expect a young girl to come up with. Daydreams about castles rising into the sky and adventures of epic proportions. I was a hopeless romantic, and it couldn’t be helped.

But even the most beautiful things cannot be perfect.

My paradise in the trees was not enough to shield me from the dusty gray smog of Jinan, China, where I lived. My trees were green, but they didn’t smell green; like how grass smells after it rains, crisp and strong. Instead, I could taste metal. The dusty air seeped into my lungs as soon as I stepped outside. After a while, I didn’t really notice it, but then the wind would blow, and the earth would taste bitter again. There was enough haze in the air that everything just smelled like haze: gray and dirty. The sun that illuminated my leafy playground was almost always hidden behind a colorless sky. When the sun set, no one ever paid it any mind. There were some days I could barely even see the trees one hundred feet away from our fifth story apartment because of the haze. A substance similar to a thick, wet, gray fog was my childhood companion. The stream which ran through my park was congested and unkempt. Algae grew in monstrous clumps in the water, and I knew never to get it near my eyes or mouth.

But I didn’t find that strange; it was simply the way things were. To a five-year-old girl, the small park where I played was a safe haven away from the hustle of the big city I lived in. When all you’ve ever known is a blank sky, who cares about concrete buildings blocking the clouds? I could look at weeping willows.

I didn’t truly care all that much about the pollution. Why would I? I had never known anything different. The layer of dirt that covered almost everything and got under my fingernails and into my hair was normal to me. If you raise a bird in a zoo, it doesn’t know that there are forests or better places to be. It wasn’t until I traveled to the United States when I was older that I realized the sky was always supposed to be blue. I lived in a Chinese city; I had only experienced a few trees, my weeping willows included. Imagine my shock over the trees of Kentucky, which were larger than life and greener than any neon sign. Who knew you were supposed to be able to drink water from the tap without becoming deathly ill? Life is so different when you can see the sunshine. And I had no idea. That’s the beauty of childhood. You don’t know what you’re missing until you get it. After that, things are never the same. It is as if the silent music of life strikes a dissonant chord, and suddenly the key has changed. Once your eyes are open, you can’t go back to the innocence you once had, as much as you might wish to.

Back then, I was just happy to play in my trees and gather their sticky leaves. Now, as the years drift by and I find myself farther and farther from my childhood, I no longer see it with the same eyes. The cracks and broken bits have shown themselves to my recollections. Not everything was as romantic as I had imagined it to be as a child. With age comes a kind of clarity which is not always pleasant. Childhood gives you the ability to be carefree and naïve but eventually one must grow up. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

The funny thing is, I still look back quite fondly on my childhood. I had a happy growing up; all things considered- and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. My home was, and always will be, my home, and that was, and always will be, enough for me. Life isn’t perfect- and my early years weren’t either- but despite the dust and the dirt, I miss it. In a strange—or perhaps not so strange way, I miss those weeping willow trees. I miss the happiness and contentment which colored my childhood. Despite it all, I had been happy.

When I left China, I left a part of myself behind. I moved to Kentucky and the tress there are different. They are huge and branch out in every direction in an attempt to touch the sky. You can’t really climb weeping willows, but you can climb oak trees. You must be careful though because the sap gets into and onto everything: hair, clothes, fingers. It takes strength, and determination, and a willingness to face danger to climb an oak tree. Suddenly I was no longer truly a child in the same way, and there are times when I miss it. Everyone idealizes some part of their youth. Even if you were just making the best of a bad situation, everyone has something they’ve lost they wish they still had. I had replaced the small river of my childhood playground with the rushing waters of the Ohio river. The Ohio River was fast and strong and nothing like I was used to. I couldn’t spend forever wishing to be somewhere I wasn’t and so I learned to cherish the cold might of such a river. I learned to cherish the wonderful way the woods smelled in the morning after the dew had fallen. I learned to cherish the hot Kentucky summer sun which stood alone in a cloudless sky. We try to hold on to the shifting sand that is time, but it slips through our fingers none the less. But not everything is gone, some things have just changed.

I continued growing and my life shifted. I’ve spent over ten years in America now, and it has shaped me as much as the willow trees of my childhood did. Eventually I ended up in Colorado. Colorado is not like China, and it is not like Kentucky, but that’s alright. There have been struggles and mountaintop moments, and they have come together to make me into who I am. I have experienced the glories of a Colorado sunset, lit aflame from within. I have experienced the vistas which take your breath away because of attraction and altitude. I have experienced the refreshing spring rain which brings the most vibrant green to everything.

I’ve lived in various places and seen many types of trees and many different rivers. The scenery has changed, and I’ve changed with it. That’s the way with life; it never quite stops flowing. One day you look back and you see how far you’ve come, and you see time stretching out behind you, and it's hard, but the only thing you can do is move forward. The music keeps playing, whether it be a willow wind chime, or a rushing mountain stream. Even if the tune has altered a bit, even if the orchestra stumbles, the concerto isn’t finished yet.

Colorado is too dry for weeping willows, but I’ve fallen in love with pine trees. They stand stately, and the rough bark is uncomfortable under my hands. They remind me that the beautiful is not always the smooth and easy. My fingers trace the grooves, and a new kind of dirt finds its way under my fingernails. Pine trees don’t have leaves in the traditional sense; instead, they have needles. You can’t stick them to things, but you can write with them. You can pen dramatic soliloquies or conduct a symphony or use them to point out the stars. There is nothing like the smell of pine trees in the morning—earthy and sharp all at the same time. You can’t help but be intoxicated by it. The smell of pine trees wakes you up at four or five a.m. When you smell pine trees, it isn’t dark like the smell of willows, it’s as bright as sunshine and just as invigorating. Life flows through your heart and lungs and out of the tips of your fingers, and you feel as if you might be able to do anything surrounded by pine trees.

Cool mountain streams rush in between the pine trees, clear as crystal. They cut through rocks and forests with reckless abandon. On hot summer days, I run my hands through the rivulets and spray the water on my face with a smile. These rivers aren’t gentle, but they bring energy and life, and they have survived this long. I intend to do the same. Despite change, new places and new trees, I have lasted and I want to continue doing so. When the wind blows, pine trees make a sound like the world is crashing. And sometimes it is, but you persevere, and you are better for it.

I am not the same small child who loved weeping willow trees and yet I am; all at the same time. Pine trees aren’t willow trees, but why would they be?


Clara Anne Wind is currently a student at Colorado Christian University studying Liberal Arts, Philosophy and Creative Writing. She has five sisters who love when she reads them stories and she enjoys hiking, painting, writing and reading. Her favorite book is currently Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis.

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