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A Natural History of the Cottonwood

Katherine A. Gleason

Trees survive despite the weather

Once upon a time, all cottonwood trees stood alone. Two or three slim trunks dotted the same hillside, but they never grew close enough together that they could hear one another. Cottonwoods liked their privacy. They had enjoyed peace for many decades, some say centuries, when Weather, that unpredictable force, altered their lives permanently.

It had been a particularly rainy spring. Leaves thrust out from twigs early, bark glistened, moss grew. Rain spilled down for days, which turned into weeks. The cottonwoods basked in the moisture, soaking, reveling, gulping, filling themselves swollen. They drank until they could drink no more. And the Rain washed them, sluicing through the sky, massaging the ground, tattooing their leaves.

The doddering Sun hoisted herself above the horizon every day, and yet the cottonwoods became unsure of her presence. Without her warmth, without the phototropic draw of leaf toward sky, the cottonwoods lost their sense of direction–which was up and which was down? The shimmering green of their leaves paled to a dingy yellow.

It started as a murmur, a whispering of foliage: Alone. Lost. Gone. And as the grayness persisted, the complaints grew in intensity and in volume. For the first time, the cottonwoods heard the rustle of each other’s voices. Alone. Lost. Gone. Despite their distress, the sound buoyed them, engendering strength and the hope of change. All the while, clouds held back the mirth of the Sun. Rain pelted the cottonwoods, soaked their bark, moldered their drooping leaves, until they could stand no more.

"She has abandoned us," they cried. Their voices surged together, a wave that broke through the clouds and reached the very Sun herself.

"I have done no such thing," the Sun replied, and she turned her gaze on the muddy cottonwoods, their limp leaves and water-weakened boughs. The clouds hovering over the cottonwoods boiled into vapor. Mists swirled from the Sun-warmed puddles at their feet. The grayness sprinted from her fierce smile, and she gave chase. Summer bloomed. The Sun grinned down on the complaining trees, ferreted out the last corners of shadow, the last vestiges of mold.

In her brightness, the cottonwoods trembled and fell silent. At first their tremor mimicked the normal shimmer of their re-greening leaves. After some time had passed, some say weeks, others months, and still no cloud had flickered through the sky, the cottonwoods shook at their roots, and their roots shifted in the Rain-loosened soil.

The dryness of early summer turned to drought. The cottonwoods shook and shimmered, their once-green leaves enveloped in dust. Browning, their leaves rattled in the scorching wind. Peering from their hillsides, the cottonwoods fixed upon the flowing water of the valley. They shifted toward the gurgling, and, as their roots remained unmoored, they glided, just slightly, downhill. Eager to slake their thirsts, they pressed on, crackling the underbrush, skirting the burning faces of boulders. Cowering from the Sun, they traveled at night and settled on the banks of the River. There they drank, their leaves plumped, and their boughs rounded. Some say at twilight they even frolicked, splashing each other and lolling in the shallows. But soon the River dried to dust, and the Earth began to harden around their roots. Their movements slowed. All play stopped.

The cottonwoods, eyeing the wetness in each others leaves, sensing the humidity of root, the underside of bark, crept into pairs. They sidled closer, and by the end of the dry summer, as the planet moved into an arid fall, the trees touched. At first, twig brushed twig. Then they intertwined. Branches drew each other in and trunks pressed close. They drank of each others’ sap. Equally matched in thirst and strength, they neither drained each other nor were they drained. The fluids re-circulated from tree to tree, and because of this movement, the limited waters sufficed. Twining, twisting together, each pair of cottonwoods bonded, forming a single, massive trunk.

Eventually, the Rain returned, the River poured itself the length of its bed, and the Sun, mollified, laughed lightly. The pairs of cottonwoods forgot the quiet height of their hillsides and rooted themselves in their valley homes. Over time, each cottonwood forgot that it had ever lived alone. Now the cottonwoods imagine that they have always been stout, river-dwelling trees. Despite the sweetness of the Sun and the nourishment of the Rain, each pair of cottonwoods clings close, together as one. To this day, they dare not let go. And that is how the cottonwood learned to embrace.

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