A cottonwood stands at the end of the street up near the school yard. It’s a big tree, its upper boughs reaching, I would guess, sixty feet in the air. Boxwood and poison ivy hide the trunk, but they can’t conceal its size. This is one hefty tree.
Though it stands alone, it is not a lonely tree. Hundreds of people walk by it every week. The paved sidewalk that runs up underneath it used to go days without seeing one human foot. But as the neighborhood has changed in recent years, dog walkers, people out for a healthful stroll, and kids on bikes pass through the shade of the old cottonwood.
Back when my first book was published, someone made the comment that there were a lot of cottonwoods in it. Walking across the Great Plains, I couldn’t help but notice that the trees lining the rivers that snake through the prairies were cottonwoods. I came to love the tree. Nothing beats sitting under cottonwood, whose shade is so different from the shade of other trees.
You can hear the wind in almost any tree, but you can’t often hear a gentle breeze. That’s what makes the cottonwood special. The leaves have an oval petiole or stem—most trees have square or rectangular petioles. This and the length of the stem allow the leaf to turn easily in even the slightest puff. And they aren’t just flipping around in the wind. They are turning on themselves 180 degrees. That is, in a mild breeze the leaf can turn over on itself. Where once was the top of the leaf, now there is the bottom. And back and forth.
The leaves make noise in their motion, and they rattle and brush up against one another. Tonight, as I walked the dogs on our appointed route, I could hear the cottonwood a half a block away. The sound resembled that of a stream running over a pebbly, rocky bottom. A tree that can make a sound like water enchants me.
I have taken off my pack on a hot summer day underneath a copse of cottonwoods in the middle of Nebraska. The leaves twisting and turning one another move a lot of water through the tree. Where out in the grass, the temperature was over 100, underneath those trees, due to the shade and evaporating water, the temperature was fifteen or twenty degrees cooler.
There’s nothing that soothes a weary traveler than a break from the sun and heat. In Silver Lake, Kansas, where a farmhouse once stood, I stepped out of the sun into the shade of a number of cottonwoods. Once through the vines at the outer perimeter of the stand, I stood on bare or nearly bare ground. That’s another facet of the trees that amaze me. Their shade is so solid that little grows under them but mayapples and dogwoods.
All across the plains, I spent hours looking up at the leaves of cottonwoods, trying to divine the sky above. When underway to Montana, I stepped off the road into the bottoms of creeks and rivers to get a slice of that cool, dark shade, to hear the sound of the wind in all those leaves. You could almost say that I made it the 1,450 miles from Kansas City to Helena because of the cottonwood.
And they led me back to Kansas City. I don’t know that there’s an official tree of the Missouri River, but I know that there’s about 2,200 miles of cottonwood stands that run from Wolf Creek, Montana, to the Kaw’s mouth. Up to Montana and back, for five months, cottonwoods were a part of my life. They provided me shade during the day. Their sound alerted me to the oncoming weather. I lighted the night with their twigs and branches.
I’m almost certain that once, a cottonwood saved my life. In the desert outside of Cortez, Colorado, when my daughter and I spent the night at Hovenweep National Monument, we took refuge under a cottonwood. Granted, the western cottonwood is different than those that grow east of the continental divide. But they are close, close cousins and will interbreed with one another. We were lost in the sagebrush and the rocks. It didn’t matter much which kind of cottonwood was growing in the sand and rocks among the sagebrush. What mattered was that I was scared. Disoriented and without a compass, we had no idea which way to go. On top of that, we had emptied our water bottles on our long walk.
As we sat in the shade of that tree, I distracted myself. The wash where the cottonwood stood ran down between two gentle hills. I noticed that other cottonwoods followed the depression toward the ruin of an Anasazi house. A hot breeze swept down off the hill above, turning the cottonwoods into a symphony of sound. I thought of streams and rivers. I imagined rain running down the gutters of our house.
Sydney asked if we were lost. I told her, yes, for the moment. But let’s go look at this ruin and maybe we will find our way. We walked down the depression, the sighs and ripples in the leaves calming my worry. We would get out of this, I thought. It would just take time.
The ruin stood to one side of the wash under a clump of stubby cottonwoods. Below, evidence of a dam, a stair step in the sand and rocks showed me that for a thousand years, water ran through here in the rain. The cottonwoods gained purchase in those rains and sent their roots down who knows how many feet to the moist sand below our feet.
We knew we weren’t supposed to climb about on ruins in a national monument, but I told Syd that she could step inside and have a look. I had to distract her from what was becoming a dire situation. I was worried. What do you do stuck in the desert? Someone would find our car at the remote parking area sometime. A day? A week? How often did the rangers come around to check on these things?
I stepped inside the small square of rocks and mortar and tried to imagine for a minute the life of a family who lived before white Europeans, Spanish, most likely, ever saw this place. Back outside, I looked up into the cottonwood outside the door. Something caught my eye, a flash or reflection of the sun in the distance. My heart leaped. I knew the little beam of light reflected off the windshield of the car. I estimated we had about a mile to go. I sighted off the trunk of that cottonwood and we started that direction. I kept looking back at the string of cottonwoods to stay on track until we could see the car clearly.
As I opened the car door, I thanked that cottonwood. Had I not gained a fascination with the tree when I was walking across the plains and coming down the river, we might not have found our way back.
I think of those lonely copses of cottonwoods where old farmhouses stood when I walk under the grand tree up by the school yard. It reminds me of the flash of sunlight off the car window and the relief of being found. I am again the frightened father soothing his unknowing daughter, sheltering her from the danger facing us.
It’s just a simple cottonwood. I’m not sure many people notice it but for the branches that they have to duck under. I’m almost certain that most people don’t know it’s a particular kind of tree, only that it stands alone and casts a big shadow. But for me, it is a gateway to a million other cottonwoods and hundreds of stories that lay on me softly.