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Watering My Willow

April 19, 2018

When I was a small child, I liked animals. This is easy--animals have recognizable faces, personalities, behaviors. Animals are athletic, they like to run and play! What I did not like were plants.

Every time I attempted to interact with a plant, I was scolded. Don't touch it, you're stepping on it, be careful, you are going to hurt it! It was obvious that they were pretty, but to me that's all they were, and I considered them inert and uninteresting.

We lived across the street from a public park. There was no playground, but there was enough space for a variety of running games and an improvised softball field. One spring when I was about seven, my father decided to add a young tree to the park's already impressive collection. (I do not know if he asked permission or forgiveness--I assume neither!) I was excited about this because I would be able to see it any time I looked out the window.

When he had finished planting it, my father looked directly at me and said, "Someone is going to have to water this tree." Throughout that spring and summer, I lugged pail after pail of water across the street to pour around the tree. The chore seemed daunting to me--looking out for traffic, trying not to slosh too much water out of the heavy pail, coming back for refills in the summer heat until the tree seemed thoroughly quenched (and I was parched!).

But I began to pay much closer attention to my charge. I noticed when its leaves started to curl or wilt. I was proud when a squirrel chose to climb it. When other kids were running through the park, I would sometimes stand guard to make sure they did not pull off too many leaves or bark, or try to climb when it was not ready to support them. I started to understand the reasoning behind the plant-touching prohibitions I had resented, and to learn which actions were nurturing and which were too rough.

"To take responsibility for" and "to care for" are nearly synonymous. Through taking responsibility for the tree, I started to care for plants as well as animals. Though they are more subtle about it, I eventually grasped what I had been told: that plants too are living things with unique histories and needs.

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