Maybe you’ve heard. As unlikely as it seems, trees may be our saviors. Researchers have determined we could plant 2.5 billion acres of new trees without losing an inch of farmland or cutting back at all on urban sprawl. Those billions of trees – take a deep breath – can sweep up and away 200 gigatons of the carbon that’s warming us dangerously. As Margaret Renkl said not long ago in a Times opinion piece, “Planting trees. . . could go a long way toward saving us from ourselves.”
If that’s true, and if we start, then I hope – I really do – that more than a few are cottonwoods.
I know that some good people are darned well sure cottonwoods are just xxxl weeds. I get that. Cottonwoods grow like hybrid corn, yield a wood so soft it’s hardly worth burning, leave yards trashed in every season, and, out here at least, sometimes look martyred, their huge branches broken and bent from endless seasonal weather wars.
In winter, they’re naked as jay birds, looming giant skeletons in the grove. Speaking of winter, cottonwoods haven’t a clue about seasons; they snow in summer, leaving fussy cottony trash o’er hill and dale. They’re messy as two-year-olds, even the ancient, barrel-chested ones that take up half the yard.
Whether, as a species, they hoover up carbon is a question I can’t answer, but in many ways, cottonwoods were long ago already our saviors out here, where, often as not, they were the only tree anywhere – the only silhouette, huge angular buoys in an ocean of grass. Native people turned cottonwood groves into prayer rooms. Wherever two or three poplars are gathered, wagon trains considered them rest stops – there had to be water nearby.
Cottonwoods do best near water. A friend of mine, who knows such things, once told me that cottonwood seeds require a good soaking to germinate, need floods, in fact, do well in them, can’t live without them. On LaFrambois Island, Pierre, South Dakota, you can’t miss dozens of newly-planted cottonwoods, each preciously fenced in. Ever since the Missouri River’s dam system controlled flooding – mostly – those baby cottonwoods need to be planted, not created as they’d been for thousands of years.
Did I mention the bark? – truly amazing stuff, beautiful in its own gruff way, thick and ribbed and rumbly. Woodcarvers peel it away from dying cottonwoods because it carves up soft as clay, I’m told.
And cottonwoods talk, well, whisper anyway, when their triangular leaves rustle in the wind. Oaks may be sturdier, elms and ash more functional, but no one else in a breezy grove turns tambourine like a cottonwood.
Big blue stem long ago lost its reign over Siouxland soil. Today, corn and soybeans cover the earth here in Iowa’s northwest corner. It may be that nothing that grows up from our blessed Loess soil into as great a presence as our mammoth cottonwoods, towering above farm groves, stand-alone giants like royalty across empty fields, broken figures whose battered branches make them seem almost heroic.
Buffalo loved rubbing up against that unmistakable bark. Lonely cottonwoods in all that prairie land would often be flooded by a moat of buffalo fur three feet deep, left behind when some wandering herd rubbed itchy sides against all those furrows.
Legend has it that back in the fifties, when the county spread blacktop over the gravel on the road straight west to the South Dakota border, one farmer held out. “That cottonwood,” they told him, “is going to have to go before the road goes in. Too blasted close to the roadbed. Look there at the way he hangs over.”
Farmer shook his head, said no way. Farmer said he loved that tree, cottonwood or not, tallest one on his place, best shade too; and you know what? – he couldn’t give a fig for that blacktop because who needs the traffic out here anyway?
Road crew was adamant. “We’re not interested in an argument,” they said. “It’s got to go. Law says so.”
Farmer looked out into the horizon. “Sorry,” he said. No smile. “Don’t mean to stand in the way, but I’m not going to take kindly to your taking down that tree.”
Road crew left that afternoon. They figured the old guy’d blow off steam that night and they’d do what they had to the next day.
So, the next morning when they got out there, they got out of the truck to find that farmer sitting in front of the cottonwood on his rear end, legs crossed, arms cradling a shotgun.
Now, if you doubt that story, go see that old cottonwood for yourself. It’s even bigger today than it was 70 years ago, and it still leans over B-64 west of Sioux Center. Farmer is long gone, but that cottonwood still lords it over the blacktop, stubborn and crooked as the guy who once held out with a shotgun.
The characters of that old story are the stock fare of prairie life. The farmer is lean, his shoulders stooped, a road map of a face – a man who might step out of a portrait by Dorothea Lange. And that cottonwood, majestic but bent up and torn by big winds.
And all around, a looming third character is the wide prairie, so featureless the first white men here called it an ocean, a sea of grass on rolling hills beneath the big bowl of broad horizon. The open prairie makes the farmer’s story go. The wide land we live in frames their mutual stubbornness, makes the farmer look up at that cottonwood as a sidekick in the prairie epic.
Trees are no mere commodity here. They stem from immigrant stock, as most of us do. It’s easy to get stubborn out here, in the cold and the heat and the forever wind, not hard to get stuck in the old ways – immovable, armed to the teeth, as if forever holding our claim.
When strong winds stagger the trees out front, we hear startled branches go down. At some moments out here, we all become stubborn old farmers sitting beneath our trees, shotgun in arms, saying no.
We measure ourselves by the reach of our trees. They grace our lives with their comely brokenness, show us what beauty is and isn’t; at times, before them, we stand in awe, sometimes in sadness. Our trees are our stories.
There’s a cottonwood slip growing in our flower garden right now – a single buggy whip of a tree. Really should go. Really should get pulled. It’s not supposed to be there. Really, it’s a weed.
But it’s a weed with a history, a weed that could turn warrior, a sapling that wants a chance to grow. And we need trees. Research says they’re our best shot against global warming.
I got to let it live. Might as well hold back the wind. Might as well draw the curtains on all that open sky. Might as well let that little cottonwood alone.
Let it be, just let it be.
Copyright © 2023 by James Calvin Schaap
Photographs courtesy of James Schaap and Barbara Schaap.
James Calvin Schaap
After a long teaching career at Dordt University (IA), James Calvin Schaap settled into retirement to do more writing and publishing, including a novel (Looking for Dawn), a collection of short stories (Up the Hill: Folktales from the Grave) and a compilation of historical sketches (Small Wonders: A Museum of Missouri River Stories). His “Small Wonders” are broadcast weekly on Siouxland Public Media, KWIT – the National Public Radio station in Sioux City. His blog is Stuff in the Basement. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Alton, Iowa.