Friday, December 2, 2011

Isaac Plants Cottonwood Trees

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 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.

Today, many tree rows look like graveyards, the trunks of fallen trees bleaching white in the sun as aging neighbors await their turn to fall. Many old shelterbelts have been bulldozed to make more room for farming; others have been destroyed by tornadoes and ice storms; and even more are succumbing to old age, as few of today's farmers plant trees as Isaac and his neighbors did.

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.

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susan snively said...

This is lovely, Lyn. I remember reading about cottonwoods in a favorite childhood book, *Cricket, a Girl of the Old West.* I wish we had such trees in New England. The name "cottonwood" is irresistible. I love the detail about putting leaves inside a hat to keep cool. To think that Isaac had 3400 trees! Their descendants must still be alive.

Grace Grits and Gardening said...

I was born and raised in Cottonwood Corner in Northeast Arkansas. And yes, the area was full of Cottonwood trees. There are still many of these trees in the area although as they die out, no one replants them. People consider them a nuisance now. They still line the ditch banks of our farm, separating the fields. I love trees in general and have many references in my blog to trees:) Loved this! Talya

BarbaraTate said...

I live on a farm in Arkansas at Cottonwood Corner. I loved your blog about the Cottonwood trees.

My husband, who died eighteen years ago yesterday, planted a Cottonwood tree in our back yard in the summer of 1980.

Thirty-two years later my Cottonwood is standing tall and strong. (I posted two pictures of my Cottowood on FB for you to see.)

Colene said...

I love reading blogs and this one was no exception. It was recommended by Talya so I knew it would be good!