Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Erstes Futter

Although there is currently an open slot for a saint named Christopher, (see post, Hang on, Saint Christopher) I don't anticipate being elevated to the Canon when I die. I simply have too many faults. But although I recognize my own imperfect existence, I have a generally positive self image. I'm more or less pleased to be me and think most of the time, I'm a pretty good guy. So it comes as a shock when I'm accused of wanton cruelty or blatantly immoral behavior.

As it turns out, my actions have come under attack most aggressively at this time of year, in April, the cruelest month, when lilacs are bred out of the dead land and it's time to prune the willows. When I was a kid, cutting pussy willows was a time-honored tradition. I remember encountering pussy willow catkins even before I entered kindergarten and thinking that they must indeed have been a kind of transspecies creature, formed by crossing kitties with what we always called a "pricker bush" in my neighborhood. It struck me as a fine idea. When I was a little older, I encountered pussy willows in the classroom too and I retain fond memories of these delightful harbingers of spring.

Here in the US, I have a willow growing in my backyard and can cut pussy willows with abandon. Not a spring goes by when I don't cut a few of the earliest shoots to put in a vase in the dining room. But during the years I've spent in Germany, finding a pussy willow wasn't always easy. Sure, there's plenty of rural territory in Germany, but I've always been stuck in the city and avoided taking cuttings from my neighbors, most of whom, I in any case didn't know. You can imagine my pleasure then, when on my most recent stay in Germany, I found a willow growing along a public path. It was a former railroad cut, not maintained as a park, and I reasoned that no one would object if I cut a few shoots to bring home. We wanted to decorate the apartment festively for a party on the weekend.

I was in high spirits until our first guests arrived. It seems that in Germany, children aren't taught to see catkins as the first symbol of spring, but rather as the "first food for the bees." With those pussy willow shoots on my table, all anyone could think of were the the poor starving bees, lying cold and hungry among the crocus in some lonely German pasture. Conversation was difficult and got harder as each of us imagined we could hear the plaintive buzzing of a dying hive, the victim of my thoughtlessness. I didn't like this image of myself as bee-killer, so when the guests went home, I researched this cultural attitude toward the pussy willow thoroughly. It turns out, bees do depend to some extent on willows in the early spring. And this "first food for the bees" thing does run pretty deep in the German psyche. Again and again I uncovered evidence on-line of indignant German speakers, reacting to crimes against the bees. I made a decision to be more sensitive to cultural values and lay off the pussy willows while in Germany.

Willows in America don't respect this new attitude on my part though. They grow like Topsy and this spring the cute little pussy willow I planted behind my house was getting up around five meters high. I hope no one in Germany finds out, but this weekend, I cut it off at the ground and the bees be damned. New shoots will come up and I intend to maintain it as a bush from here on in. Maybe I'll put out a saucer of sugar water for the bees, but come on: rural Utah is lousy with willows. Surely the bees can find some other sucker to provide their first food. And when he dies, I'll nominate him for canonization myself.