Black Willow Tree
Riverdave's Journal
This essy appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 5/4/97

Folks have inquired of me repeatedly through the years about the source of my inspiration for describing my public float trips on the Eno River as "wafting.'' 

Of course, the word literally means to float gently, being buoyed up by air or water. There are many examples of natural phenomena that waft, but one writer from New England seemed to employ the word extensively with particular artistic flare. Naturalist Henry Thoreau and his brother John built their own boat and gently wafted down the lazy coastal river of eastern Massachusetts known as the Concord. This adventure is described in Thoreau's first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

In this account, twelve items are mentioned that were wafted over water:

a freshness from a meadow,
a fragment of a boat song,
the seeds of the life of fishes,
a leaf which is wafted gently from its twig,
the music of Irish laborers at night,
sounds from the movement of boats on the canal,
sweet ointments by a dove,
natural and original fragrances,
a strain of music wafting down through the ages from Homer,
odors and sounds of a purer realm,
fairer fruits and sweeter fragrances betraying another realm,
and in their own boat they wafted like a dark evening cloud over the sky of                                    
      the fish that were swimming in the river below. 

In his better known work, Walden, Thoreau mentions four other wafting experiences:

the fragrance of a man to another man,
evidences of unexplored continents,
decaying leaves to the bottom of Walden Pond,
and the pure waters of the pond wafted by winds around the world. 

But the likely candidate to be Thoreau's most waftable item is the tufted, feathery seed of the black willow, Salix nigra, a riverbank tree that sends its seeds wafting in late spring. This is recorded in a recently published collection of Thoreau's writings entitled Faith in a Seed, edited by Bradley Dean. Three passages from this work specifically describe the wafting willow seed while many others passages allude to the expression.

"Their tiny seed is buoyed up and wafted far through the atmosphere, and speedily clothes the burnt tracks of all British America and our northern wilds, affording both food and shelter for the beaver and the hare. "

"But though the seeds of the willow thus annually fill the air with their lint, being wafted to every cranny in the woods and meadows, apparently only one in a million gets to be a shrub or tree. Nevertheless, that suffices; and nature's purpose is completely answered.'' 

"Its minute brown seeds, just perceptible in the midst of the cotton, are wafted with this to the water - most abundantly about the 25th of June - and there they drift and form a thick white scum, together with other matter, especially against some alder or other fallen or drooping shrub by the side of the stream, where there is less current than usual.'' 

The black willow is a tree that reaches an average height of thirty to forty feet along the Eno and other eastern North Carolina rivers. In the lowlands of the Mississippi River delta it has been recorded with a height of 140 feet, making it the tallest of all the species of willow in the world. Stout stems form a broad but irregular crown. A shallow but extensive spreading root system stabilize this riparian tree.

The black willow is usually referred to as a pioneer tree. As currents build up silt and sand deposits on the inner bend of a river, the willow will often be the first or pioneer tree to spring up after its seeds or boken twigs take hold.  Pure stands of the tree are able to colonize a whole inner river bend, stabilizing the new sediment that has been recently deposited.

Behind the willows on a Carolina river will usually appear a row of river birches, behind which will eventually form a wall of riverine hardwoods -- the elms, maples and ashes. As Thoreau mentioned, willows also pioneer fields after a forest fire. The wood of the willow itself became an import resource for the production of charcoal in the early years of American history.

The black willow leaf is readily recognizable as a narrow, four inch, deciduous blade. It emerges from a brittle twig that easily snaps at its base, a remarkable adaptation for dispersion. At high water levels when large pieces of debris come swiftly sailing downstream, these brittle twigs snap off when bumped and are carried downstream to rest on a newly forming sand bar or mud flat. The stem plants itself and begins another colony.

The bark of the black willow is dark brown to black and divided into deep forking ridges. In older trees the bark becomes shaggy. But the bark, more than any other feature, has given the willow its claim to fame. It has long been used as an analgesic as it contains salicin (salicyl alcohol glucoside), a compound similar to aspirin. It is also antipyretic, reducing fevers, and has a calming effect on the nervous system.

In early spring the black willow flowers with three inch, dangling catkins of a single sex, each sex on a different tree. The resulting fruit of the tree is a flask-shaped, reddish brown pod containing numerous seeds, winged with silky down. As the pods open, a virtual snowstorm commences as the fluffy seeds tumble out and fill the sky, being wafted by warm spring breezes along our rivers, lakes and bottomlands seeking sand bars and mucky mud flats to take hold. To experience the waft of the willow seeds has become a special rite of spring that I look forward to every year.

Often I will see a line of mature willows along the ridge of a beaver dam, thereby transforming the dam into a natural levee and causing a permanent impoundment of waters. This has happened on Steephill Creek above Yates Millpond in Raleigh. The willow also takes root along man-made levees as can be found at the subimpoundments created by the Army Corps of Engineers on New Hope Creek in southern Durham County. As a stabilizer of waterfronts, the willow is a protector of both property and life probably more than any other tree.

In Faith in a Seed, Thoreau, in typical eloquent fashion, summarizes his own personal relationship with the willow in the most inspirational and even biblical of terms:

"I commonly litter my boat with a shower of these twigs whenever I run into the black willows, for they are low and spreading, even resting on the water; and therefore I had ignorantly pitied the hard fate of the tree that was made so brittle and not so yielding like a reed. But now I admired its invulnerability. I would gladly hang my harp on such a willow, if so I might derive inspiration from it. Sitting down by the shore of the Concord, I could almost have wept for joy at the discovery of it.

Ah willow, willow, would that I always possessed they good spirits; would that I were as tenacious of life, as withy, as quick to get over my hurts. I do not know what they mean who call the willow the emblem of despairing love! -- who tell of `the willow worn by forlorn paramour!' It is rather the emblem of triumphant love and sympathy with all Nature.''

Photo by black willow seeds ready to be wafted by the wind