The voice of the cottonwood

Recently, one of my friends told me that when she and her husband drove up on Blue Mountain to view the fall colors, they wended their way along an aspen-lined road.

“The leaves seemed illuminated from within,” she said. “The light didn’t come from the sun because it was a cloudy day.”

Ted and I didn’t make it up on the mountain before the first snow and the falling of those luminous leaves, but we did see the cottonwood trees turn to glory.

I’ve always been grateful for cottonwoods. When I was a teenager, living on my great-grandparents’ farm in Kansas, family and world trauma darkened my world, but I had a haven where I could escape — a gigantic cottonwood tree.

My great-granddad had planted a large, square windbreak to protect the house, outbuildings, and orchard. Outside that border, fields stretched to the north, west, and south.

My cottonwood stood on the northeast corner of that perimeter. When I sat with my back against the trunk, it seemed the most solid, stable thing in my life.

In the middle of the windbreak, I caught glimpses of sparrows, cardinals, squirrels, and rabbits if I stayed still enough.

Above me, the cottonwood leaves shimmered green or gold, depending on the season, and rustled in the breeze.

Gnats, flies, and mosquitoes in the summer and toe-freezing cold in the winter made staying still a challenge, but I risked it because the cottonwood’s sturdy trunk, huge crown, and heart-shaped leaves helped me feel that heaven had not completely deserted a world gone mad.

Even though I loved my tree, cottonwoods are not valued in Kansas because their wood is weak and used mostly to make crates, boxes, or pulp for paper. And when the wind blows, which it often does in the Midwest, limbs come tumbling down.

In fact, the trees are banned in some cities because of their cotton, limb breakage, and invasive roots.

Despite all that, the Kansas State Legislature designated the Eastern Cottonwood as the state tree in 1937 because, the legislators said, “The successful growth of the cottonwood grove on the homestead was often the determining factor in the decision of the homesteader to ‘stick it out until he could prove his claim...’ the cottonwood tree can rightly be called ‘the pioneer tree of Kansas’” (Kansapedia/ Kansas Historical Society).

However, long before the pioneers, Native peoples viewed the cottonwood not only as useful, but sacred.

Black Elk, a famous Oglala Lakota medicine man who lived from 1863-1950, said, “Perhaps you have noticed that even in the lightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree: this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men, but all things and all beings pray to him continually in differing ways” (The Singing Tree/ Desert Spirit Press).

After reaching maturity at forty years, those praying trees often live sixty more years, but they have the potential to reach the ripe old age of 400, depending on their environment.

I don’t know how old my cottonwood tree was, but after I left home, my great-aunt’s farmhands cut the windbreak down to make room for more crops.

Years later, she also razed all of the buildings, so the area is now one big field, but my mammoth tree provided comfort, stability, and a connection to the divine when I needed it most.

When I moved to the Four Corners area, I was grateful to find that even in the desert, Freemont cottonwoods grew along the rivers, streams, and washes, an unmistakable sign of life-giving water.

The Native tribes in the Southwest have long valued the cottonwood as medicine and food and use it for a variety of purposes, including as a symbol of the sun, in burial rites, and to create kachinas.

The Hopi, like the Lakota, believe in the connection between earth and heaven and are convinced the whispering leaves are the gods speaking to us.

These magnificent trees also provide important food and habitat for wildlife, including insects, beavers, rabbits, deer, elk, and sometimes even bears.

Hawks and eagles often nest in their huge crowns, and when the cottonwood begins to die, myriad birds and animals find shelter in its cavities.

Many cottonwoods grow in Westwater. I grew concerned this summer when the stream went dry for two or three months, but we either had enough moisture or the water table is close enough to the surface that the cottonwoods didn’t seem to suffer.

And because we received rain in August and September, the leaves are dazzling, a blaze of glory along the bottom of the canyon.

Oggie and I have a favorite place in a natural clearing near the stream. I sit on a flat rock under a large juniper while Oggie roams the bottom, grazing on the delectable grass.

In the summer, when the stream is running, hummingbirds, towhees, robins, and occasionally hawks or even deer will visit if we stay still enough, but in the fall, we hear only the stream and the leaves of the cottonwood trees.

In that quiet place, if I open my ears, I can hear the trees praying; if I open my eyes, I can see the leaves luminous with life; and if I open my heart, I can feel the divine whispering peace to us all.

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