–Engage your mind or others will engage it for you.–
Cottonwood trees are the legacy of the departed farmer. Once mere twigs, they grew quickly to become giants of the valley landscape. The oldest Cottonwoods are slowly dying. Each Spring the emerging leaves draw in closer to the trunks, leaving more of the outstretched branches as bare as skeletons. More and more bark sloughs off, leaving the trunks to bleach in the Summer sun. Dead Cottonwood trees resemble the ruins of medieval cathedrals. The bare branches seem sculpted and shaped, like the flying buttresses that once supported a stone ceiling but that now lift up the ceiling of the sky.
In one huge dead Cottonwood, a few rickety rungs of an old wooden ladder still remain, nailed into the trunk sloughed of bark and smooth. Remnants of a tree house platform rest inside the forks of the branching trunk. I wonder: what child played in this tree, in the tree house he built from spontaneous adventure, and then abandoned with age? Has he grown old and died, like this tree? In another dying behemoth, a Great Horned Owl stands regally on a top branch, silhouetted black against the deep blue sky of late twilight.
Some forgotten farmer planted a Cottonwood sprig on Ron’s property long ago. It has grown to enormous girth that pushes into the dirt road of Rabbit Lane. The dilapidated plank fort-fence stops on the south side and resumes on the north, with the trunk standing between. The tree’s branches arc high over the road and over collapsing coops, forming a verdant tunnel through which sunlight filters green on the ground below.
I thought one day to determine the old tree’s circumference. A group of people might circle the tree holding hands, but the fence blocked the way. Instead, I took a tape measure on my walk, a length of rope, and a roll of masking tape, as well as the children. Tying the roll of tape for weight to the end of the rope, I swung it in circles above my head, letting it fly toward one side of the tree. My first attempt sent the roll of tape flying straight past the tree into the cow pen. A few more attempts taught me to throw the weight in such a way that the rope would hit the tree and pull the weighted end around. On my last attempt, both roll and rope came circling around the tree to rest conveniently on a bent, rusty nail protruding from the trunk, placed there as if for the purpose. Bringing the tape end of the rope to the section of rope I was holding, I marked the place with a piece of tape, untied the roll of tape, and pulled the rope back around the tree. Holding the rope against the closed tape measure, I pulled out the measuring tape as I stretched out lengths of the tossed rope. My mark on the rope landed on the 17-foot mark. Seventeen feet around! What a tree! What stories it could tell from its long life: storms and clear skies; plantings and harvests; birthings and butcherings; arguments and celebrations; growing and struggling and flourishing; baptisms and christenings and funerals; growing old and enduring age and change.
In early Summer, the Cottonwood trees produce wispy tufts of cottony seeds. They fall soft and thick, like snow, but slower, accumulating in clumps on the ground. Occasionally they float and rise on an unperceived breeze, seeming to defy gravity. And they make people sneeze.