I write these words some dozen feet from the soft earth of the Virginia mountains, my feet dangling from the thick willow branch that also supports my butt and my back, because rain has been scant here of late. Everything that was bright and green at the turn of August has now gone a rusty brown. Leaves are falling brittle and dead. The deer and the bear are coming out of the woods to forage what they can. Those you meet in town shake their heads and shrug (“What you gonna do?”) and cock their heads up to a cloudless sky the color of the sea.
The dry season is here. And that’s why I’m here, in my willow tree.
It happens every year around this time, usually between the start of school and the beginning of harvest. There will be a few showers here and there, thunderstorms that blow over the mountain and dump inches of rain in minutes, the water unable to pierce the hard ground and so floods the streets and lowlands. Water, but the sort that nourishes little and helps nothing. The kind of water that only makes the weeds grow.
Though it’s a little more difficult to rummage around in the woods this time of year, I still do. You have to mind the snakes and grouchy critters, and you have to understand that going along quiet will be impossible with all the dry wood and hard leaves. But it’s still the woods, still the quiet wilderness and the open sky and the mountains all around you, and that’s where I went a little while ago and where I’ve always gone with things get a little rough.
Dry seasons don’t just happen in the world. They happen in us, too.
Have you ever noticed that? There are seasons right outside your door and there are seasons right inside you, and both can blow cold gales or steady rain or bright sun, and both can make you happy for life and make you dread it.
Whenever it’s dry both inside and out of my own days, I’ll take a walk along a path through the woods across the street and listen for the sound of the bold stream that winds and dips its way from the deep mountain to the South River, and I’ll come here. In all my years, I’ve never known this stream to dry. No matter how parched the summers get or how long the snow doesn’t fall, the water here always runs. I’ll weave my way between all these dying and thirsty trees and follow the near bank, ease myself over the moss and slippery rocks, to the spot where the stream bends toward town. To where my willow sits.
It is an ancient one, tall and thick of trunk, with a canopy that rises and falls with a gentle grace of perfect symmetry. My tree is a marvel; I’ve never seen another quite like it. I’ll stand in its shadow and feel the cool of the air beneath its branches, rub my fingers over the long, slender leaves. Let it all fill my sight. And then I’ll leave my hat in the soft earth and slither up the trunk, my hands groping more by memory than sight, for the upward path to the first sturdy branch. There, I’ll sit and look and listen.
It isn’t a magic tree, this willow. As a boy I thought such things possible, even plentiful, but no longer. Not usually, anyway. Besides, this tree isn’t set apart from the hundreds and thousands of others surrounding it. It’s just as subjected to the seasons as any other. My tree isn’t always so green and blossoming. It doesn’t always look wonderful. It’s still in the world and so has no choice but to suffer along with the rest of its forest kin, to feel the stifling heat and the frigid cold, to be tasked with the very goal that is tasked to every other living thing everywhere—to endure, and for as long as it can.
Yet I’ve come here often in my own dry seasons (and I imagine I will continue doing so in all of my dry seasons to come) because there truly is something different about this particular tree, and advantage it possesses that the other trees here do not. And I scamper up these branches and sit and watch and listen so I will greater appreciate that difference and better apply it to my own life. Because even though this tree is planted in the same earth at the same base of the same mountain as so many untold others, this tree has also been planted along a stream that never dries. Its roots have access to a constant source of water. Even in the heat. Even in the dry season.
I sometimes fall into the trap of believing the happiness to be had in this world comes like the rain. It falls from the sky into my waiting arms and I try to gather up all I can, knowing that it will never rain for long. But here, in my willow, I know different. I know better. Real happiness is the kind that doesn’t depend on anything external, whether its rain from the sky or a cool breeze to chase the heat. It is instead found inside. Down deep, where your roots are.
It’s a lesson I’m going to try and hang onto whenever I decide to climb back down and resume my living. One I’d very much like to take home from the woods. It’s a valuable lesson, and maybe the most valuable one of all, to know that your happiness or your sorrow won’t come from whatever happens to you, but from where you’re planted.