MY grandmother was a willow woman

This weekend, my grandmother died. Early March, I saw her for the last time, to celebrate her 86th birthday. She was already dying a bit for some years, because she suffered dementia and Parkinson. Every time I leave her, I give her a big kiss. She is also the last person I gave a kiss. Some days after her birthday, the light corona lockdown started in my country. We don’t hug or kiss people anymore. Early May she was tested positive for COVID-19, but she didn’t had any symptoms. I was proud on her and called her a willow woman.

Four weeks ago

I wrote this at my Instagram account @wereldwoud which documents my journey of a forest therapy guide.

“Willow’s affinity for water has enabled them to flourish in the Low Countries, where they are a dominant feature of the countryside. (…) In Belgium, some say that the pollarded willow is a metaphor for the country’s people – solid, restrained and hard to knock over.” – Around the world in 80 trees (by Jonathan Drori)

One of my #grandmothers, the one who lived and worked at a family farm for big part of her life, is like a willow in the Campine. 8 days ago she is tested positive for covid19. She is 86 years old. So we were a bit afraid. We checked again with the nurse today. No symptoms. It seems she is like a willow: “solide, ingetogen en moeilijk om te gooien”. I cannot meet her since early March, but sometimes, especially when I see the willow in the garden, I think about the willows in our family today and in the past.”

Back to the Roots: my garden tree

Some weeks ago, I wrote for this Eurovision contest for trees: Branching out: A Tree Pageant. For some time I am following also the IG of the Belgian contest for tree of 2020. I think it was late April, or early May, when the contest organisers wrote this quote (I translated it for you): “When searching for a tree with a special story, people usually start in their own garden and their own memories. In this way they become (again) aware of the beauty that nature has to offer.”  The first sentence in particular is right for me. After I heard about this contest, I looked often to the willow tree in the garden of my paternal grandparents and wondered: Does this willow have a story good enough for this contest? Perhaps I was inspired by my discovery of the Scandinavian practice of sacred garden trees. Perhaps I wanted to talk about willow trees, because a willow tree hadn’t win the competition. I know willow trees do not become that old as oaks, but willows are so Belgian. 

I asked my father about this willow tree, but he does not have the same details. This willow is also present in my book ‘Als Meubels Konden Spreken‘. In April, I wrote also about this willow in a short story for a competition. In both stories, this tree became a subject and got a voice, inspired by ecolinguistics and ideas I expressed already last year in Changing the Stories We Live By #2: The Forest Sees You..

I am giving up to nominate my own garden tree, because it seems to have only a story to me, and more importantly, you cannot see her from the street. One of the conditions is that this tree should be visible from public space. However, I am looking (and asking) around for other willow trees. I am that stubborn to find a willow with a special tree in the Campine. All the Flemish winners came from the same province (which isn’t mine), so I have also this ‘proud/competitive’ thing going on. I wonder if this is so strong, because I am rooting again in the land from where I come from.

Pollarded Willows in my region

I reached out to an agency in my region to ask if they knew pollarded willows with interesting stories. They confirmed that there are many pollard trees, but they are rooted mainly in rows. There is no big solitary tree.

I also learned that willows do not get very old. 100 years is already extremely old for a pollard willow. On average, it is more like 50 years. So willows could only witness more recent history, in contrary to oaks who live much longer, or yews, who can become thousand(s) year old.

Pollarding = extension of lifespan, but at which expense?

Another thing I started to read was about the practice of pollarding. Pollard trees are culture trees. Our ancestors discovered that from certain trees could harvest wood again and again, without the tree dying. A huge advantage in times of wood scarcity! Depending on the type of wood, it was used for all sorts of things: as firewood, for stems and tools, clogs, for weaving baskets…  A pollarded tree is not a species in itself, but the result of pruning. By the formation of wound tissue on the cut surfaces creates a spherical thickening on the trunk, the “bun. After each bun, new branches grow out of the bun and so you can harvesting wood from the same tree over and over again. In the book “Gossip from the forest” by Sarah Maitland I read also in the chapter dedicated to May or June that pollarding is also a way to extend the life of a tree. I know this practice is getting lost.

pollarded willow

This Saturday I talked with older women, who are also involved in Belgian projects with nature-based health practices, shortly about pollarding trees. I remarked that it is a practice I might want to learn, because I want to learn some “ancient practices” which have cultural value for my own region. In the past few weeks this spring I was also eager to learn more about this region and our history of this family. I also told one of my best friends about it. He was making small joke that I have an old spirit and that Norwegian people only look into family history when they are 70. But I think I felt the need to take care I can be a keeper of the family stories so the family can live on in the memories and stories I tell one day to my own children. Every time I see the willow tree in the garden I think of my grandmother. It is now clear.

But then one of these older women she had double feelings about pollarding. To her it seems that pollarding is like mutilation. We extend the lifespan of these trees, but at which expense? It seems ok for people who use this tree, but what about the tree itself?

My grandmother became a pollarded willow

I feel different emotions. I feel sad. I light candles. I do not pray a lot, but today I prayed that she can find a new home today with our vava. I want to believe my grandparents are back together. I am also relieved because she has been dying a little bit every day for several years. She was suffering, so I felt her physical body was also becoming her biggest limit. Last years, I witnessed her pain. The doctor and nurses gave her a lot of painkillers, to extend her life. When I arrived back by bicycle in her old house, and saw the willow tree in our garden, I realised she became a pollarded tree. The willow in our garden is not pollarded. And then she died.


The legacy of the willow woman

Ivonne – that is her name- was not the grandmother who made cookies, read fairytales to me and took me on big hiking trips. That was her husband. She stayed home and governed the household. For many years I taught our bond was not so strong, but I learned it is different. Movies and other stories in mainstream culture let us believe that a happy grandmother-daughter relationship should exist of that. But I got other things of this willow woman. She was the grandmother who taught me values ​​such as simple living and hard work. Now that I am back in Belgium for some months and live in her old house, I realize I want to be more like her and grandmother. Or a combination. Be in nature, waste little stuff, have a simple life in harmony with the more-than-human-world, be modest, and read fairytales to children. When I lived with her a while ago, some years ago, I was between jobs, figuring out some things, and I spend some months with her. I also had one of the greatest lessons in humility. In that period she started to get Parkinson, so I helped her take off shoes and socks every day and cooked for her. I also washed her a few times. I had never seen a naked old lady. It was a service that you do not do to get something back. It made me humble. It felt right to take care of my “older”. I think I saw my grandmother differently after that. When I was a child, she didn’t give much material things or hugs and kisses, but she showed me values. I got many hugs and kisses from mom. So it was ok, I realize, that another woman in my family taught me different things than my mother. Every woman has to offer so much. Different things, but priceless things.

I believe she is more free… not anymore a pollarded willow tree. In the short story I wrote, the grandmother of my main character buried the ashes of her grandmother close to the roots of the willow, so her spirit would move there. I like to imagine she was transitioning of her pollarded human body to this free willow in our garden. In some way, I feel I was preparing for this transition for my own grandmother, from one body to another.

Some friends from other cultures are sharing how they see death and loss. One friend from Mexico told me that the spirits move in your heart and stay alive in our memories too. Listening and reading stories from friends all over the world has been helping me. I find solace in nature, listening to stories about rituals from all over the world, which help us to say goodbye, and I find solace in writing. For some people, it might sound strange to write about this synchrony, of learning more about pollarded willows and saying goodbye to pollarded willow people. But I know you are all tree people, so I know you will understand.