July 9th, 2014 ~ Vol. 84 No. 27
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Wind in the Willows
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
John Kinnear photos
A huge pruning job on that monster willow, out of control.
“By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion. There on the willow-trees we hung up our harps”
Psalm 137

Every man should, sometime in his lifetime, plant a tree and be around to watch it grow to maturity. Trim it to keep it shaped nicely and take note of how it grows and how it looks through the seasons.
In 1980 when I moved to Fernie I planted a mountain ash in the front yard and some willows in the back. The ash came from a local nursery but the willows came from the dump. They were small discarded branches from a previous grower who I really should have talked to at length about the worthwhileness (is that a word?) of cultivating these beautiful but annoying trees. I rooted them in a pail of water and stuck them in the ground. They grew like weeds and shed their branches at the slightest breeze.
In 2004 two of the willows in the backyard hit the forty foot mark and the branches began menacing the kitchen window and shading most of the yard. (So that’s why my French lilac never flowered!) I didn’t follow my earlier advice and keep them trimmed back. Despite their grand appearance, with massive trunks, it was obvious that a serious pruning was in order.
The decision was not taken lightly and as some of the larger branches crashed to the ground my wife Lorraine and I felt we should be in mourning. For 24 years we had watched these trees grow with amazing speed while the local birdlife discovered them to be a rich and safe place to be.
Downey woodpeckers, stellars jays, purple finches, annoying crows and a whole myriad of other birds found refuge in them and fed from the always replenished feeders hanging in their branches. Swings and hammocks were hung from the lower ones as they thickened and larger branches were occasionally cut to provide perches for our tropical parrots. Stripping the bark off of those sacrificial branches seems to be a treat for a macaw, a parrot whose crunch power is rated at 2000 psi. Needless to say, perches have to be replaced on a regular basis unless you use harder woods like Manzanita and Arbutus.
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I observed through the years that the willow has an amazing will to survive and grow. Mine survived that horrific winter wind storm in 1991 that toppled thousands of trees in the Fernie and South Country area. Mind you they looked like a bomb had gone off in their midst but they recovered as always. Cleanup after a wind storm was a given as any willow owner will attest.
I noticed over the years an amazing thing about those inevitable small broken willow branches. If left on the ground for more than 24 hours the very end pair of leaves twist themselves together into a spiral and then they actually burrow into the grass. If you leave them on the lawn for more than a day or so you have to literally pull them out when doing yard cleanup. They have the same powerful survival force built into them that the Wandering Jew plant has. If you cut a branch off of a Wandering Jew it will slowly draw the life force left in it up towards the very last two leaves at the tip of the branch. Each lower successive pair of leaves will die off until the last two at the tip are the only ones still surviving. If you try and take a cutting of a Wandering Jew you are pretty well guaranteed it will develop roots before it dies off completely.

This will to survive is undoubtedly what makes a Y-rod made of willow the most successful water witching tool. Water witching for the uninitiated is the art of locating water with no prior knowledge of the water’s existence. The Y-rod must be cut fresh while the wood still has the desire to head south plus the rod must be able to flex so that it can point to the ground.
Even though the practice is commonly used all over the world, science looks at dowsing with a jaundiced eye. I think that is because it smacks of psychic or right-brain functioning. Dowsers can find a variety of other things buried like gas and water lines, septic tanks, old road beds and building foundations.
Many years back when I was working at Line Creek Mine I had occasion to call in the local gas company locator Santos Rocca to the mine site for a gas line location headache. Santos was quite adept at witching for gas lines using uncoated welding rods. The rods, bent in an L-shape are held loosely at the bend and pointing away from you. I was out and out amazed when those rods criss-crossed on him as he walked away from me. He marked the ground where they were crossed and it turns out he wasn’t far off the gas lines actual location. I conducted a test of my own with those rods and walked another area until they crossed. I glanced both ways to find gas line markers about 100 yards away and noticed that I was exactly in line between them. Santos had more sophisticated sensing tools with him for locating but the rods were useful to get him close to his target when there were no markers.
Theories on why dowsing works range from altered energy fields created by running water to breaks in magnetic polarity from the disturbed soil.
Probably the most amazing thing about willow has to do with its healing properties which country folk have been familiar with for a long time. They made an infusion from the bitter bark as a remedy for colds and fevers, and to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatism. Young willow twigs were also chewed to relieve pain. In the early nineteenth century modern science isolated the active ingredient responsible, salicylic acid. From this the world's first synthetic drug, acetylsalicylic acid, was developed and marketed as Aspirin, named after the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spirea ulmaria.
July 9th ~ Vol. 84 No. 27
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