Cowboy poet Larry McWhorter had a business building pipe and cable fencing in Texas, and his business card read "Fiddlestrings." He prided himself on building sturdy and beautiful fences with taut cable--like a well-tuned fiddle. Because he took such pride in his work, he took his time about it. That also allowed him to write poems in his head as he worked, and he didn't mind a bit of conversation when I stopped by. One hot day he noticed a little volunteer cottonwood tree growing on our property, and he walked over to remove a few leaves and slip them around the inner hatband of his cowboy hat. He laughed at my perplexed expression, saying, "That's an old cowboy trick to help keep a fella' cool when he's workin' in the sun."
I don't know if Isaac knew that trick or not, but he definitely knew how to grow cottonwood trees from cuttings. He explained the procedure he had perfected, writing on April 22, 1885: "...cottonwoods quite leaved [sic] out too much so to make reliable cuttings...I lately making my cuttings 15 inches long, 3 to stick out & 12 in ground, to better withstand droughty spells, and surer to grow." Isaac arrived to stake a homestead and a timber claim in 1878, when there were no trees on the prairie. On March 1, 1885, he wrote in his journal: "During middle of day counted the trees on my homestead alive & thrifty...on Homestead & Timber claim...total 3400 growing trees."
Among the trees on the prairie, the cottonwood towers above most of the others. The spade- or heart-shaped leaves have a smooth, shiny texture, and when the trees are stirred by a breeze, the leaves make a rustling noise like a lady's taffeta petticoats or that gentle sound of light rainfall on the roof. The shiny surfaces catch the light and reflect the movement of each leaf, a shimmering gold when the leaves turn in the autumn.
Cottonwood trees are fast growing--seven feet or more per year, and long-living--up to one hundred years, and they tolerate drought better than most trees. Naturally, they were a popular tree with the early settlers. During the dust bowl years in the "dirty thirties" cottonwood trees were usually included among the other varieties of trees planted in rows as windbreaks to help control soil erosion. These strong, healthy giants are the trees of my childhood memories, their cottony seeds drifting down in late spring, their sturdy limbs great for climbing and building tree houses in summer, and their bright yellow leaves for raking into piles, jumping into, and raking again in autumn.
The actress Kim Novak wrote: "...when you touch these trees, you have such a sense of the passage of time, of history. It's like you're touching the essence, the very substance of life." I understand her feelings of connection with ancient trees, knowing that ancestors enjoyed standing in their shade. Perhaps that is why I find it so sad to watch the gradual disappearance of the prairie cottonwoods.
While their numbers may be declining and their vigor nearing an end, those that remain lift their golden crowns into the clear blue of the autumn sky with the same regal beauty that Isaac must have admired over a century ago.
(Please continue to let me know what you enjoy with your comments, clicking on +1, and checking boxes.)