The Comfort Of Cottonwood Trees

Riparian giants hold a whole world in their branches, but their time is as fleeting as the human beings they shelter

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Tom Brossart photo

Cottonwood trees and bright, blue sky at Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood reflect from one of the ponds. The park has a dock, launch ramp, fish cleaning station and modern restrooms.

I heard the warm wind coming from a long way off, rustling through the tremble of cottonwood leaves off down the Verde River.

I held my position and my breath on the bank of the river, close by the bass and trout-stocked lagoons of the colorfully-named Dead Horse Ranch State Park. I waited happily for the wind to reach me — swirling through the brilliant yellow leaves overhead. I had come for the comfort that cottonwoods always offer me, especially in the extravagance of fall. I had come because my father had always sought out cottonwoods, with his bird book and binoculars and his child-like need to name the things he discovered. I had been a year now without him and the lack of him still seemed vivid as the yellow leaves that shimmered on the tree above me. I had thought that tromping through a place he loved would allow me to imagine his footfall in the dying leaves at the edge of vision, but instead the day only echoed with his silence.

Except, perhaps, for the wind, which finally arrived with a great, chromatic flurry of fluttering leaves, pulled loose finally after a heady summer’s steady work. The heart-shaped leaves showered down all around me, turned gaudy yellow from the carotenes, lycophenes and flavones left behind when the thrifty monster of a tree drew back its leafy stash of chlorophyll as a precaution against the frosts of winter.

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Tom Brossart photo

Several trails wind around the lagoons, and lead to the Verde River Greenway and onto the Coconino National Forest. The two lagoons total approximately 16 surface acres. The largest of the lagoons at the state park takes on a different hue as it reflects the color of the setting sun .

The leaves rained down on the languid waters of the Verde River, which had nurtured both cottonwoods and human beings for more than 10,000 years. I strained to imagine the river reaching up to the trembling tops of the 100-foot-tall, 100-year-old cottonwoods — for these remarkable trees are creatures of the river, as surely as the bass and the moss and the upstream turning eddies. I picked up a piece of cottonwood root then and noticed the eddies and twists of current in the wood grain, so full of life and wisdom that it makes perfect sense the Hopi made their sacred Katsinas from cottonwood roots.

I wished I knew the proper prayer for the wind and the dance of leaves and the grain of the root — but instead I could only murmur an apology.

For we have blindly betrayed the great gifts of the cottonwood, arrayed in all its glory now at Deadhorse Ranch State Park — not to mention the secret places of the East Verde and other struggling, hidden streams. Deadhorse Ranch State Park has Sunday nature walks through one of the few remaining, intact cottonwood-willow forests left in the Southwest — which have a greater mass and diversity of living things than any habitat north of the tropical rain forests.

Here’s a fact to chew on: Cottonwoods account for 1 percent of the forests of North America — but they harbor more birds than all the other forest types combined. Partly, that’s because they grow along the river corridors that provide a migratory path for the neo-tropical songbirds that each spring forsake the tropics and spread out across North America. Partly, it’s because the trees yearn so irresistibly skyward that they form a layered world of habitats — suitable for the nests of Great Blue Herons and Bald Eagles as well as the attentions of the humblest of Brown Creepers.

But what most amazes me is how the cottonwoods echo the river, in all its complex extravagance of life. A single cottonwood will produce 30 million seeds in a season, produced from flowers of fluff timed to coincide with the high-water of spring. The tree unleashes a snowfall of seeds attached to fluffy parachutes in the fall, when water levels fall to their lowest ebb.

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Tom Brossart photo

Sunlight filters through a canopy of trees.

This gives the blizzard of seeds a chance of landing on a wet, exposed sand bar — usually on the inner bank of a river meander. The sand grain-sized seeds can only put down roots if they land on bare, wet sand in the sun — which means they mostly only seed after a flood has ripped away the shadowing vegetation and left a sodden sand bar. The seeds produce roots at a breakneck pace, clinging to the sand grains with special fuzzy tendrils and pushing down through the sand trying to find a permanent source of water before the sun dries out the sandbar. In a single season, these roots can dig down 30 to 60 inches, questing for the water table. But even though 4,000 seedlings can get a start on a single square yard of wet sand, few will survive. In fact, conditions favor widespread cottonwood regeneration only about once every 5-10 years.

They survive by adapting themselves perfectly to their beloved stretch of river. Northern Arizona University researcher Thomas Whitham has published fascinating genetic studies that hint at the complexity of the relationship between the cottonwood and the river — and the legions of creatures whose survival depends on the cottonwood. For instance, he and fellow researchers collected cottonwood samples from different rivers, moved them around and measured their growth rates. Astonishingly, they found that nearly three times as many of the seedlings survived in the soil to which their mothers had adapted than in alien soil. And once established, the seedlings grew 20 percent faster in their native soil.

I sat then on the gnarled root of the great, yellow cottonwood and savored its shimmering reflection in the placid waters of the Verde River.

It occurred to me that the seedling that produced the cottonwood sheltering me now probably took root against all odds at just about the same time my father was born, just ahead of the Great Depression, with a World War still to fight. Cottonwoods are a lot like us, wildly ambitious, but short-lived. They hold up the sky, create a whole world, stand fast against floods — but hurtle through their lives and return to the soil while the ponderosas and oaks dream their long and inscrutable dreams.

Oddly enough, this thought finally comforted me.

Even this shall pass away and even tears must return to the river.

At just this moment, I saw a flash of brilliant red in the lower branches of the tree — a summer tanager, lagging behind well past his time.

Dad would have loved that.

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