This is the tiny flower that creates what I’m calling a divisive odour—one that some people like yet others hate—the wolf willow blossom.
The words used to describe the odour have the same division. Some refer to it as “that aroma of the wolf willow”, while those on the other side of the fence speak of it as “that stench of the wolf willow”. I fall into the ‘aroma’ group.
For me, talking about the odour is only part of its description. That smell triggers memories—good memories of my youth, starting in the late 1940’s and refreshed every late spring up to around 1955. Those memories are then triggered whenever that scent arrives, which is always sometime in June.
To properly describe its effect on me, I have to bow to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner and quote from his book, ‘Wolf Willow’, first published in 1955. The stories in this book were written after Stegner made a purposeful trip back to the land where he was raised. In his book, he calls the small town where he lived as a youth Whitemud, but in fact it was the real town of Eastend, Saskatchewan.
The whole air smells of it, outside as well as in. Perhaps it is the river water, or the mud or something about the float and footbridge. It is the way the old burlap-tipped diving board used to smell; it used to remain in the head after a sinus-flooding dive.
I pick up a handful of mud and sniff it. I step over the little girls [playing on the river bank] and bend my nose to the wet rail of the bridge. I stand above the water and sniff. On the other side I strip leaves off wild rose and dogwood. Nothing doing. And yet all around me is that odour that I have not smelled since I was eleven, but have never forgotten, have dreamed, more than once. Then I pull myself up the bank by a grey-leafed bush, and I have it. The tantalising and ambiguous and wholly native smell is no more than the scrub we called wolf willow, now blooming with the small yellow flowers.
It is wolf willow, and not the town or anyone in it that brings me home. Wallace Stegner
So, as with Wallace, my story is not so much about the aroma as it is about the memories the aroma triggers. The first memories are about times spent at our family cottage on Katepwa Lake in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, a place I’ve written about many times before. There, we had wolf willow growing wild outside my bedroom window. My memories grow from then and include times in my younger life, living in Alberta.
Late each Spring, when the wolf willow aroma is in the air, I’m treated to a surge of memories accompanied by visions of my youth for which I have only to close my eyes. The season is almost over, but the past few weeks, walking along the river or down the Big Hill Springs creek near the Cochrane Ranche House, the Wolf Willow has worked its magic upon me. Once again, I’m thankful for the experience.
The Wallace Stegner book is available through most local libraries, at least in Canada . It is also still available to buy online. Not a bad recommendation for a book first published in 1955:
WOLF WILLOW at Indigo Books
In Eastend, the house that his father built and his family lived in for six years, is now called simply, The Wallace Stegner House. It is operated by the Eastend Arts Council as an artists’ writing retreat and is fully booked most years.