We finished putting the garden in today, and afterwards took a walk around the farm to work the kinks out of our backs and legs. It is already cottonwood season here, and the white seed tufts float over our heads, piling up like snow in the path Keith mowed between the woods and the fields. We had never noticed which of our cottonwoods were males and which females, but now we know: The males grow along the creek, a reminder of their riparian nature; the females—which produce all the fluff– grow farther south, though we grant that at some point in their history, they, too, may have taken hold next to water.
Cottonwoods are a particularly American tree. One variety or another grows in almost every state. Our own, Populus deltoides, the Eastern cottonwood, is especially prolific. It also is the tree of westward expansion. Lewis and Clark mention it frequently in their journals, collected its leaves for their herbarium, and learned to make chiseled-out cottonwood canoes to navigate western waterways. Pioneers crossing the prairies kept a lookout for cottonwoods, too, knowing that where there were cottonwoods, there also was water, but likely also lonely for trees amongst so much grass. The cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas, Wyoming, and Nebraska, the latter a feat I suspect Willa Cather played a role in: The tree appears so often in My Antonia!, for instance, that it is a character in its own right, an eternal mother figure to which Nebraskans turn and return for comfort.
Keith and I understand this. Having grown up in the Midwest, we know the cottonwood as the tree we’ve hitched our memories to. It is the sound of summer, the leaves’ long stems freeing them to ride the wind’s waves, to rustle and scrape against each other on those hot nights when we’d lie with our heads in the window, breathing in their cool, softly tannic-scented breeze. In the autumn, the cottonwood’s leaves are the first to turn yellow, so painfully beautiful against our blue, blue sky. They are the first to fall, too, sinking to our pathways in a layer like brown linoleum, bitter and damp, their raw dying somehow both admirable and terrifying.
The bark of the cottonwood is ridged and furrowed as if by fire, though the opposite is true: That tough skin is what kept it safe from prairie fires. Cottonwoods produce seeds by the millions, but the fact is, cut six inches off a live tree limb, stick it in moist soil, and it will grow. Today, we may think of cottonwoods as trash trees, floodwater trees, trees that will grow up along the margins of whatever landscape we humans denude and then occupy. But this is their grace and their history, to grow unbidden, untended, and yet beloved.
There is an Indian legend about a star that hid in a cottonwood tree to be near the humans who gathered there, sharing stories and songs. The tale made no sense to me until recently, when I came across a woodworking site that solved the mystery: Each cross-section of a cottonwood branch has a star shape at its core. On our walk today, Keith and I took along a long-handled pruning saw, and we valiantly fought the very healthy blackberries, rambling roses, gooseberries, and poison ivy, hoping to find a reachable limb to cut.
We had no such luck: the shortest of our trees is 100 feet tall, each limb a vertical marvel. But this is one disappointment we think we can bear.