Beneath the Cottonwood
The eastern cottonwood is native to moist soils near streams, rivers and wetlands. It is a very fast growing tree. It is therefore often planted as quick shade by homes, though male clones are mostly used since they don’t drop cotton. The eastern cottonwood is also used for soil stabilization along banks of streams and rivers. It is used to reforest nonproductive fields in sandy soil. There is also interest in using it as energy for biomass because of its high yield potential.
Although the use of cottonwood as biomass is of interest to me, I am less concerned and intrigued about the tree for its ecological and economical importance (Though how it fits into the ecology of a place is very important and of interest). I look beyond how the cottonwood can serve humans, marvel at its ecological importance briefly, but soak in the tree itself as an individual that played a role in shaping me into who I am today. What I unconsciously learned from the tree while playing near and on it; the wisdom the tree imparted to me. It nourished that innate love for nature and the sense of awe in which I behold it. The ability to pause and marvel at beauty. To observe patiently with all five of the senses. And looking back now, the importance of landscape and natural objects on memory along with the value of landscape imprinting on people.
There is something special and unique about the sound of the wind in a cottonwood tree. There is nothing that sounds quite like it. It sounds almost like a small waterfall. The leaves clattering together is like paper bells tinkling. The leaves’ bottoms are flat, and the rounded teeth of the leaves are slightly hooked, distinguishing them from other trees in the same family. The leaves are thick, like a heavy paper or tag board and are silvery green in color. Late April, beginning of May, the cottonwood flowers. The long dull red flower is called a catkin. The catkin like fruit is composed of many small capsules. These capsules split and release seeds attached to cottony hair; this cotton is where the common name came from. In May and into June the cotton floats in the air, slowly settling down on the ground coating it in some areas, it has the appearance of snow. Settling on the grass, there is a peaceful beauty to the cotton. With close observation, the little, oblong seeds can be seen. On my morning walks, I enjoyed walking under a couple cottonwood trees as its snow slowly drifted down around me. With the cotton floating in the air, came memories of childhood.
Several cottonwood trees stood in the pasture near the house. A waterway was nearby, it was flowing with water in the spring but was barely a trickle later in the summer unless it rained hard. Many childhood days were spent playing in this pasture under the shade of the cottonwoods. These giants in the pasture intrigued me; there was something stately and yet swampy in their appearance. The deep furrows of their bark were of great interest to me as a child. I loved to run my fingers along the bark, up and down the valleys. I loved to rest against the cottonwoods that were lined up on either side of the waterway. My brothers and I would lean into the massive trunks pretending we were hiding. There was a log that had been part of a tree years before, which we used as a bridge over the waterway. Our imaginations thrived and soared under those cottonwood trees. The cotton lazily drifting on the wind excited us and often became part of our play.
A part of a tree at the end of the line broke from the rest of the tree, just barely attached; the top of it came to rest on the other side of the waterway. I climbed up it, using branches to pull myself up. Carefully, I scrambled up the limb, until I was several feet of the ground. I would sit straddling the limb; sometimes lie against it wrapping both arms and legs around it with my head resting on it. There was a lot of comfort from embracing the tree, as I felt its energy embracing me. It was like hugging a grandpa, the strength encouraging and reassuring. I also enjoyed the bird’s eye view of the pasture. There was another tree that I bonded with; it stood away from the rest of the trees, further up the hill, all alone in the sunshine. This tree was particularly special to me; I was just drawn to it. Perhaps it was because the tree was like me, preferring to be an observer on the edge of activities. There was a branch just low enough to barely reach. Jumping up, I would grab a hold of the branch, sway back and forth to gain momentum, then swung my leg up over it, and pulled myself up onto it. Often I would get a few scrapes in the process but they were worth it to sit on the limb and feel the tree’s energy, its life flowing into mine. I considered the cottonwoods friends. I carry memories of these individual trees with me now; they come gently floating in each time I hear the wind rustle the leaves of another cottonwood tree, which remind me of the lessons I learned and the encouragement I felt.