May I ever be in as good spirits as a willow! How tenacious of life! How withy! How soon it gets over its hurts! They never despair. — Henry David Thoreau, from his journal, February 14, 1856
“The black willow twigs were dark and withy against the sky. Nearer the ground, small flocks of sparrows flitted among the cattail stalks, their brown cylindrical fruit clusters spilling pale fluffy seeds from their tops like freshly uncorked champagne.”
Words that I recorded and quoted in the winter of 2017 — appearing in my new book, Finding Solace at Theodore Roosevelt Island — describe perfectly my observations during a winter walk on the island yesterday. The slender black willow twigs were as withy as ever against the sky and the sparrows were busy in the snowy swamp, gleaning seeds from winter weeds. A bountiful acre of cattails spilled frothy seeds from their cork-like tops.
This week we received a multi-day blessing in Washington, a city much in need of a blessing: snow, our first real snow in two years. We didn’t get more than a few inches, and a coastal storm passing farther north on day two only grazed us, yet for three days the magic flakes fell and our trees stayed laden with white. Children giddily slid down every available hill, cross country skiers (I among them) glided along the trails in Rock Creek Park, and The Washington Post reported an epic organized snowball fight near the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall. On the fourth day, as the wind picked up and began to blow the snow from the treetops, I visited Theodore Roosevelt Island.
The Little River channel of the Potomac was jade green and filled with choppy waves as I crossed the footbridge to the island from the Virginia shore, the bridge itself covered with a thick, footprint-rutted ice sheet. The tide was high and the river wild. A red-tailed hawk flew to an island treetop, the wind whipping and ruffling its feathers, and the many-clustered fat reddish buds of the silver maple trees along the river’s shore danced merrily against a white sky.
Snow brought welcomed new perspectives to the landscape: the silvery smooth bark of the beeches and their wheat-colored marcescent leaves fetchingly framed in white; the dramatic dark island rocks iced on top; Grandmother Sycamore, her creamy limbs leaning over the jade river, her color in synch with the whitened world. When I got to the swamp and the tidal inlet, I delighted in the incongruity of bald-cypress knees springing from snowy ground.
Theodore Roosevelt Island, an 88.5-acre island less than a mile and a half from the White House that memorializes our foremost conservationist and naturalist president, has been my refuge and literal touchstone during the past four difficult years. Although a new administration has brought fresh hope to Washington, the pandemic lingers and so do our crushing social inequities and our polarization. I must continue to call upon the willow’s “withiness” for the foreseeable future.
I am growing weary of distances — of relationships filtered through Zoom and text and email, or at best a mask and six feet. After nearly a year, I feel loved ones slipping away. I am grateful for Jim, my beloved husband of 45 years, yet I long to hug my children, my extended family and friends, share a meal with them, have a good laugh — and not only over Zoom. (That said, I am grateful for the technology that sustains our connections as best it can.)
While nearly every relationship, and even yoga practices, are filtered through screens, my relationship with Theodore Roosevelt Island, and Nature itself, is still direct, hands-on, immediate. I hug the trees ever more closely, touch the comforting rocks with reverence, marvel over the antics of the birds, and watch the seasons change.
Winter has always been my going-deep time, an island of sorts in a busy life. When winter isn’t cold enough or snowy enough, it’s hard to achieve the soulful hibernation I value and need. Yesterday the winter beauty of the island filled and nourished me. As I moseyed along the icy boardwalk through the swamp, the wind blew lyrically through the treetops and I was happily sheltered from its cold near the ground.
The branches and twigs of the black willows seemed especially withy as the white cloud cover broke, revealing patches of blue. May I remain withy too.
Withy: Flexible and tough, like the willow twig