Why Willows Weep
  Edited by Tracy Chevalier

The Woodland Trust

" These yew trees are the oldest living things in the country. They wish it were not so. They would like to slide away, as can the ash and the oak and the elder. But human memory is brief, stupid, unconnected. Men have not yet learned to live side by side like the trees of the forest. So when the white winter dawn comes once more, and the solstice is over, the yews sigh and stretch and settle back into their ancient selves for one more year. For the length of an age. "

Reviewed by James Murray-White

There are some real gems in this collection. Each of the 19 authors has been given the brief to write to or about a specific tree. It may not be their favourite tree – they are given the chance to name these in their bio, which appears at the back; but all of them picked up the brief with relish and have produced soulful stories that display a deep love for trees and woodlands. Indeed it seems that many of the writers herein are hewn from bark and sap themselves, such is the depth of communion. Salley Vickers in Why Willows Weep, for example, writes beautifully of the influence trees have on humans, though there is a heavy sadness imbued in the story due to the sheer depth of human folly, not only against trees, but to ourselves, and other creatures, hence the final line: "but the willow tree that lost its magic can only bend its head and weep."

Phillipa Gregory's Holly is probably the saddest in the entire book, using the holly as a metaphor for domination and suffocation of a woman's spirit, delivered in the first person. It is writ through with sorrowfulness but some sexiness too, and does come up for some cathartic air by its conclusion.

The theme of man/womankind's dominion over all the earth is a common thread through most of the stories, and I'm struck by how fable-like many of them are. Its interesting how ‘big picture', encompassing thousands of years of human and non-human history and right back to creation itself, the overwhelming sense of the book is.

Susan Elderkin's contribution, This One (or how the blackthorn got its flowers) is full of soul and verse, and emphasizes the value of community, amongst the trees themselves, but also in the challenging relationship with humans:
The blackthorn got to experience the downside of being loved, of one limb being brutally severed from another, the slow agony of dehydration; but it was worth it.
Writers  Richard Mabey, who is much admired for his nature writing, and
William Fiennes both tackle head-on the use of trees to us as practical objects that have advanced human design and technological manufacture. Fiennes, whose beautiful non-fiction book The Snow Geese is a true marvel of writing about the natural world, notably captures this beautifully in poetic form within his story Why the Ash Has Black Buds:
Trees often wondered what their particular fate might be. Would they subside into the long sleep of coal….or find themselves reconfigured as handle, hurdle, post, shaft, joist, beam – or something more elaborate and rare?
He brings the story back round to pens and ink, and makes a clear point about how every thing expresses itself, in some way.

His story is a perfect opener for this rich range of points of view. They are interleaved with leaf illustrations from artist Leanne Shapton, which beautifully provide a pause and space for reflection with bold colours that range from vivacious to really dour and dank. The most down-to-earth story, blending irony and the slight irritation relationships sometimes bring, particularly when driving with one's beloved in the middle of nowhere and recurring patterns of dialogue come up, is Ali Smith's Scot's Pine (a valediction forbidding mourning). There is a lovely tale-telling here, blending straight fact, supposed fiction, and the ever-present supposition of life we humans are so good at. I feel this quote from it tells it wonderfully (read it with a Scottish accent if you can):
Standing so mournful, and apart, and dour, and elegiac. Scottish to its roots.
Why Willows Weep has been put together to raise much-needed funds for The Woodland Trust. These are cash-strapped times, but every copy of this book will enable the planting of five native trees.

I read part of this book while up an old oak tree in the glorious Wiltshire countryside: a real pleasure and communion with wood and word. What more could we want? Buy a copy and delve deep of the woods. 

Read several stories from this collection in 5 Dials Magazine (PDF)

James Murray-White is a writer and filmmaker, who likes nothing more than being in woodland. His youth was spent climbing trees. Now slightly older, he admires them from the ground up.
James' other Short Reviews: "Sea Stories"

S Yizhar "Midnight Convoy"

Guy Dauncey "EarthFuture"

Hugh Brody "Means of Escape"

John McGahern "Creatures of the Earth"

"Park Stories"

Peter Wild (ed) "Paint a Vulgar Picture: Fiction Inspired by the Smiths"

"Ox Tales: Earth, Fire, Air and Water"

David Constantine "The Shieling"

John Updike "My Father's Tears"

Thomas Lynch "Apparitions"

Fred McGavran "The Butterfly Collector"

James Kaelan "We're Getting On"
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Editor Tracy Chevalier has written six novels, including the bestselling Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Authors William Fiennes, James Robertson, Richard Mabey. Tracy Chevalier, Susan Elderkin, Rachel Billington, Blake Morrison , Maria McCann, Terence Blacker, Joanne Harris, Philippa Gregory, Catherine O'Flynn, Tahmima Anam, Maggie O'Farrell, Amanda Craig, Ali Smith, Philip Hensher, Salley Vickers, Kate Mosse

Read an interview with Tracy Chevalier