Friday, September 24, 2021

CROWNING GLORY – The Shimmering Magic of Cottonwood

I’m walking along the Mississippi River just below our house. Down here the reality of our bustling, heart-of-the-city location recedes from view. Hundred-foot wooded bluffs block city sounds and hide the beautiful homes that line East and West River Parkways above. So, except for the hulking Franklin Avenue Bridge and the occasional airplane flying over, this place looks and sounds very much like it must have 150 years ago.

Lost in the rhythm of my steps, I make a little game of trying to spot flying grasshoppers sunning on the hot path before they spring. Here and there an over-achieving sprig of sumac, turned red as a Chinese lantern, rends the green. 

In shady low spots clusters of massive trees stand sentinel. Between them woodbine, milkweed, Canadian moonseed and wild aster claim their spots where just the right sun exposure and soil conditions invite them.

(Today I’m also keeping an eye peeled for the wily coyote family I’ve caught glimpses of down here the past few weeks.)

  I find a patch of grass, lie down
  on my back and just let the serenity wash over me.

At one point I look straight up and suddenly everything I’ve been seeing seems lifeless in comparison. For I’m walking under a vibrant canopy of cottonwood leaves, tens of thousands of them shimmering* in the fresh, early-autumn breeze.

When I squint, it looks like sun’s glint off a ripply lake. The deltoid leaves pivot freely, their pearlescent surfaces catching the sun, blinking on and off, against what seems the bluest sky I’ve ever seen.

And the sound. It’s a whisper…a rustling…no, more a sort of high-pitched gurgling, like water rushing over coarse gravel. It’s one of the most beautiful, soothing sounds in Nature.

Of course each tree species has its own unique sensory qualities. But today, my creaky neck torqued back about as far as it will go, I’m enchanted by these gentle-giant cottonwoods. I find a patch of grass,  lie down on my back and just let the serenity wash over me.

      Show me an oak or pine, walnut or ash that  
      effervesces so.

Cottonwoods are the lumbering oafs of Minnesota’s extended tree family. With their towering stature, shallow root systems, relatively soft wood and a tendency to rot from within, they’re among the first trees to succumb to wind storms—or even mere gravity.

Their wood’s not especially valuable, their pollen is the springtime nemesis of those with allergies, their roots displace sidewalks and sewer pipe, and the sticky sap and cottony seed fluff they shed are the bane of homeowners and groundskeepers.

But cottonwoods are not all bad. They do make fantastic shade trees, providing sustenance and habitat for countless critters. They often huddle in clusters of three or more distinct trunks. (I discovered one a few years back with six massive trunks in a circle, all about a foot apart, leaving a soaring, silo-like space in the middle. I loved standing in there and just feeling the life and spirit of that tree surrounding me.)

And then there’s this singular magic cottonwoods perform on breezy, late-September afternoons. Show me an oak or pine, walnut or ash that effervesces so.
       The leaves are free not just to flap, but
       also to rotate in the slightest breeze.

So why do cottonwood leaves do this? How can they twirl back and forth instead of just flapping like other leaves? It’s because, like their cousins, poplar and aspen, cottonwoods’ leaves have what are called “vertically flat petioles.”

Because their petioles, their stems, are supple and flat rather than cylindrical, the leaves are free not just to flap, but also to rotate 90 degrees or more in the slightest breeze. (Picture grasping a stick by both ends between your index fingers and thumbs, and twisting it. Then do the same with a blade of grass.)

Next time you’re in the presence of some big ol’ cottonwoods, see if you can get fully present with them. Experience not just their enormous size, their clustered trunks and deeply furrowed bark, but also their crowning glory, those magical twittering, twirling leaves.

* If you’re looking for a word to describe what cottonwood leaves do in the presence of sun and a little breeze, could there be a better descriptor than “shimmering”? The word’s like an optical version of an onomatopoeia; it sounds like the way what it describes looks.