Friday, July 9, 2010


Alder Catkin

"Whenever the wind drops
an alder catkin into my palm,
or a cuckoo calls merrily,
with trains screaming by,
I fall to reflecting,
and struggle to grasp life's meaning,
and, as usual arrive,
at the place where it slips from my grasp.
Reducing oneself
to a speck of dust in a starry nebula
is an old way out,
but wiser than trumped-up grandeur.
and it's no degradation
to realize one's own insignificance,
for in it we realize sadly,
the implicit grandeur of life.
(From Yevgeny Yevtushenk's Alder Catkin)

Somewhere in my reading this morning I ran across the word catkins. It nudged a memory from my childhood - nudged but did not summon. Was it in a children's book Mom read to us? Or was it a verse from a poem? Is there a nursery rhyme about catkins?

Catkins are those slim, worm-like flower clusters that hang from many types of trees in spring. The word is from the Dutch katje which means 'kitten'. Maybe what I'm remembering is Mom identifying the pussy willow catkins for us. I thought she called them catkins because they were gray and furry and soft, like kittens.

But the memory that was nudged was of this type of willow catkin - not the pussy willow type. So maybe I'm remembering the catkins from the willows around the pond? Mom was my teacher when it came to identifying every kind of plant. She knew all the trees, flowers, bushes and weeds. Recently when I was with Ron and asked about identifying a particular plant, I said, "Didn't you learn all the species from Mom when you were little?" For some reason, he did not. Which means either he wasn't interested in a botany lesson or Mom didn't identify plants and trees for him. I believe it was the former.

I've also speculated that as a daughter, I remember plants just as I remember familial relationships because of some inherited gene. From the beginning of time, it has been the females who learned what plants were safe to eat and passed the knowledge to their daughters. Just as they remembered the family relationships so clan lineage was kept distant enough to result in healthy descendants.

I'm almost certain I'm remembering the catkins of the willows. They are the one tree I can always identify by smell as well as sight. The aroma of Salix evokes many memories. Catkins are but one of them.

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