Learning from the cottonwoods

cottonwood trees

This week, the sandhill cranes passed over our ranch. Their distinct whirling coo and haphazard V formation are easy to recognize, and it always feels bittersweet to watch them ambling south. Unlike the return voyage, the harbinger of warmth and light, this passing heralds the long cold ahead.

The cranes were right on schedule this year. By the time you read these words, our little corner of the prairie is predicted to have experienced its first winter storm and first negative temperatures of the season. It’s what we’ve been preparing for, and yet, can one ever really feel prepared for winter? I know I never feel ready!

In other news, I learned this week that if you break a cottonwood branch at a growth joint, provided the branch is neither too old nor too young, you will see a star shape inside the pith, the channel which transports nutrients from the soil to the leaves. Apparently, this star shape is common to all the relatives of cottonwood such as aspen, poplar, and willow.

I love all the trees in this family, but cottonwoods hold a special place in my heart, as it is a small grove of cottonwoods that stands sentient over our ranch, visible for miles in any direction. Without a compass, a map, or roads, we’d still be able to find our way home just heading toward their silhouettes against the horizon.

Similarly, three other cottonwood trees stand in the deep draws of our north and east pastures. From our ranch house, the surrounding land looks flat except for the tops of those trees, which reveal the hidden depths.

For a person raised with street signs, the cottonwoods have taught me how to find my way in a landscape where human-centered construction plays only a small role. There is comfort and a bit of wonder in this relationship.

According to different sources (full disclosure: I have not been gifted with these stories personally, only read about them) many plains tribes have sacred teachings about the cottonwood. Some Lakota people call her the “tree of life” due to her stars, and use the branches in Sun Dance ceremonies. Dakota storytellers share the tale of a little star who wanted to hear the sounds and the songs of humans and hid in the cottonwood tree to hear them as they worked. Cheyenne and Arapaho people might weave a different narrative: If the Night Sky needs more stars, they call on the wind, who blows the branches and causes the cottonwood twigs to break off, releasing the stars.

The last one resonants. For years I’ve been doodling the same drawing in the margins of notebooks and on scrap paper of a solitary tree, branches leaning to the right as though pulled by a strong wind. The branches still hold a few sparse leaves, but most of the leaves have already been carried away. Some of the leaves captured in the wind’s embrace are beginning to change shape. They look like birds. But, if you follow the wind’s path, the birds begin to change as well. They are becoming stars.

In the evenings, when my kids were still babies I used to walk them past the grove of cottonwoods and tell them stories about the ‘Hush Hush Trees.’

“They are singing us a lullaby,” I would say in reference to the shuffling rasp of the grove’s conversations.

Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota Holy Man, shared a similar sentiment (although far more profoundly) via his writing: “Perhaps you have noticed that even in the slightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree; this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men, but all things and all beings pray to Him continually in different ways.”

The leaves are gone now, the whispered ‘Hush, Hush” quieted for another year. The cottonwoods’ prayers swirl in the wind, waiting to be composted into the rich soil that feeds both the trees and the grasses that surround them. But I am thinking of those stars, released with the prayers, sparkling bright against the darkness, lighting a path to the heavens.


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Eliza Blue is a shepherd, folk musician and writer residing in western South Dakota. In addition to writing her weekly column, Little Pasture on the Prairie, she writes and produces audio postcards from her ranch and just released her first book, Accidental Rancher. She also has a weekly show, Live from the Home Farm, that broadcasts on social media every Saturday night from her ranch.



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