We first discovered this willow tree in spring 2006. I had just had major surgery and was unable to drive. My sister took pity on me, taking me for an outing. We rambled south and stopped at a favorite birdwatching place along the Black River in southern Thurston county.
It had been a cold, wet, gloomy winter that looked like it would never end (never have major surgery in winter if you can help it). I had had excruciating pain for months before the surgery - the worst of my life. It had been a profoundly difficult journey to the Underworld and at that point of time in late March, just 5 weeks after surgery, I wasn’t sure I could (or wanted) to come back. Then we found the Tree.
It was midday, about 50 degrees, with weak sun pushing through clouds. We parked next to the Black River, and “happened” to park next to a lone willow tree, probably a Sitka willow. We briefly looked at the willow, noticed it had tons of fuzzy gray pussywillows and dismissed it. We wanted to see BIG wildlife: the Red tailed hawks, the Great Blue Herons, the first migrant swallows of spring.
But oddly for this place, none of the big things showed up. And as we sat there, using our binoculars to scan the horizon behind the willow tree, I suddenly noticed: hundreds of bumblebees flying in to the tree. We watched carefully for awhile and realized: they were the new queens of the year, starting up their hives, and flying into this willow. They went to the gray pussywillows that had progressed on to yellow pollen, and proceeded to collect this pollen to provision their young brood of worker bees. In this picture, if you look closely at the sky to the left of the tree, you can see many black dots: these are all queen Bumblebees heading to the willow store.
The sun came through the clouds and the day started to warm up. We then saw a Rufous Hummingbird female come into the willow. We watched, spellbound, as she delicately, carefully inserted her bill into an individual pussywillow, clearly collecting nectar. I was astounded; while it was obvious that the massive amounts of pollen were nourishing the bees, I had no idea that pussywillows could also provide nectar. As we watched, more females came in, then a male hummer, who promptly started a territorial fight. It was quite a show.
Then the sun really started to break through the clouds. Suddenly we noticed a BUTTERFLY flitting through the pussywillows. (Butterflies in March are pretty rare). It was a California Tortoiseshell, coming to the willow to collect nectar. These butterflies overwinter as adults and sneak out on the rare warm sunny days for a quick burst of nectar energy. This one stayed for awhile, and was joined by others of its species. We stared, our eyes glued on the tortoiseshell as it inserted its proboscis (drinking tube) into the pussywillows, clearly finding and drinking nectar.
We sat for a long time, the sun warming our backs, the rich life all around us, the Tree of Life bringing its abundance and fertility back to the Earth and her creatures. It was a profound lesson in the seasons of life: to everything there is a season and the Tree of Life was bringing all of us: the bees, butterflies, the hummingbirds (and me ) back into the warmth and life of spring.
My spirits lifted for the first time in months. Life once again held hope, beauty and possibility. The Tree of Life brought me back from the Underworld and back to life. Ever since, that willow has a special place in my heart.
Photos by Nancy Partlow
Check out the Black River Unit of the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge at: www.fws.gov/nisqually/getinvolved/bru_general.html