There is a very special cottonwood just south of my home.
The term special might seem inappropriate for this common, abundant native tree. And because their even more abundant fluffy seed packs irritate most allergies as they disperse in mid-summer blizzards of cotton, they are considered weeds in some areas. It is illegal to plant native (fluff producing) cottonwood trees in much of Colorado. Only the sterile, hybrid “cotton-less” cottonwoods can be found at most nurseries. Lot of good they would have done Moses with his lost and starving tribes who apparently made bread of this fluff stuff.
It’s been said by some historians that the Lewis and Clark Expedition could well have been called the Cottonwood Expedition for the many uses they made of this tree. Early pioneers used this tree for many purposes. The huge trunks have been carved and burned into dugout boats, crosscut for wheels and whittled into axles.
Cottonwoods were the settlers’ most consistent source of fuel for warmth and cooking as well as providing shelter from wind, rain and sun. And while not known for durability, there are at least two cottonwood log cabins in Colorado well over 100 years old and still in excellent condition.
They stand as sentinels of water sources across the plains, and although reputed to be relatively short lived, they always seem to outlast the decrepit homesteads they continue to guard, shade and shelter for many decades after they’ve been otherwise abandoned.
Cottonwoods are also the largest and fastest growing deciduous tree in sub alpine, mountainous zones, and by far the most prevalent tree along waterways in these regions. Rivers in the lower foothills down to the plains and deserts are lined with the larger broad leaf cottonwood, while the higher regions from about 6,000 feet and up, support the narrow leaf variety like the special one in my back yard.
While there are at least a dozen large cottonwoods visible out my southern windows, this one appears and behaves a little differently. It stands on the west side of my corral, leaning slightly to the east, expressing a mild disregard for gravity, and providing the earliest shade of the day during the hot summer months. For this reason, it attracts much activity, and inactivity, on hot afternoons. It’s where my mules and donkeys choose to hang out and roll in the dust on such afternoons, and where I will park a vehicle for minor repairs, or set up my sawhorses for other projects. It is more robust than the surrounding trees and in the fall it takes on a little more color than the others. It must also have a better angle to the sun because it really stands out and seems to glow from within.
A couple of years ago during an afternoon windstorm, I was watching the autumn leaves whipping around in a wind that seemed to be stripping all the trees in a wild display, when I noticed that while this most colorful of all trees was swaying and dancing with the rest, it did not appear to be losing any leaves. The next morning, however, as the first rays of sun turned the tree to gold encased in crystals of frost, the tree spontaneously began throwing a dense, golden shower into the still morning air.
The slow, gentle swirl of golden leaves was the only visible motion in sight, as the other trees seemed to have already lost any loose leaves to the wind, as logic might suggest. The tree continued this steady release of leaves for what felt like an impossibly long time. The numbers of leaves falling appeared to far exceed the numbers held aloft and yet the canopy remained as rich and dense as ever. It seemed to have an endless supply of gold.
Recently, I happened to be watching the morning after a hard frost just as the sunrise was lighting up the gold, and saw a repeat of this steady shower of leaves dropping of their own accord in the still morning light. I took notice that afternoon as the tree again refused to release its leaves to the greedy wind, choosing rather to save them, I supposed, until the next morning when the spotlight of the sunrise would best enhance the performance. It made sense that a hard frost, at the right time, might freeze and loosen the petioles of the leaves such that the thawing of the morning sun might cause the gentle mass release.
The next morning was a repeat of the hard frost and glittering crystals, so I got my coffee and waited for sunrise to start the show. As the first rays of sunlight reached the upper branches, the frost crystals twinkled and then winked out, one by one, as they thawed in the sunlight, but no leaves fell. I waited. The tree waited. Too much time passed. A leaf fell and a few seconds later two more, then nothing for several minutes. I refilled coffee and continued to watch. A few more flutters of several leaves at a time, but no shower of any sort. I watched the tree the next few mornings and windy afternoons when I was around, but the tree had decided to hang on to its gold for a while. It continued to defy any sort of logic I could apply.
My respect for the tree increased with its unpredictability and I felt something akin to envy for its independence of schedule. Its refusal to cooperate with any form of logic, to be so successful and defiant a rebel, while merely standing there silently and effortlessly defying gravity, diminished any attempts on my part, to rebel against anything. Even able to run around on two legs, wave my arms, and scream objections to society in general, any efforts of defiance on my part would be dwarfed by this impetuous, uncooperative tree.
It occurred to me, as I write about this tree, that I should be working on a book that a friend, an established author with his own publishing company, has asked me to co-author with him about simple homes and lifestyles. This is a topic he believes to be potentially very popular and marketable at the present time. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for anyone hoping to become a writer. Yet here I sit with my distracted keyboard, keeping my eye on this tree in the late morning sun.
Then it dawned on me that I am a contender. I am at least as sedentarily rebellious as this arrogant tree, and certainly more so than the average tree. It becomes a standoff as I sit over my cold coffee and wait, daring it to drop, or not drop a leaf, or drop them all at once, because I know that I am capable of anything as unreasonable and unpredictable as it is. I feel a strong and proud kinship with it. Attempting to conjure more similarities to increase my feeling of connection with this worthy companion, I’m stopped dead in my tracks by the most glowing and glaring fatal difference – the tree appears able, while ignoring me in silence, to not only feed itself, but also to produce and control an unlimited wealth of gold.