The massive cottonwood hugged the bank along the canyon wash, a vestige of strength and resilience. Piled high up its deep furrowed bark was flood debris – twigs and reeds and juniper logs - from a long ago flashflood. The material stretched a good 10 feet up the trunk while the canyon floor snaked away another 15 feet below. The debris must have been from one of those raging floods that uprooted small trees and moved boulders and shaked the canyons. But here the cottonwood stood a testament of endurance to that unseen deluge.
Of course, there were other deeply rooted and aged cottonwoods in this canyon. They, too, were survivors of countless small floods and the Big One that cleaved away banks and redirected channels. Younger trees also dotted the wash, some of them with trunks skirted with small debris piles from a later flood, too young to have witnessed this ancient event.
The trees were Fremont’s cottonwoods, Populus fremontii, also known as Alamo cottonwoods in Texas. Widely distributed across the American Southwest, these trees form the foundation of riparian or streamside vegetation. From California to Texas and south into Mexico, the tree bears the name of John Charles Frémont who was a military officer, explorer, one time presidential candidate and adventurer who blazed trails across the West and was known as the “Pathfinder of the Rocky Mountains.”
But long before Frémont, the native Southwest tribes knew of the cottonwood and its properties. Different peoples had various uses for the cottonwood. The Hupa Indians of Northern California wove the tree’s thin flexible roots into the framework for baskets. The Chumash made skirts out of the long, fibrous strands of inner bark that are as thin as sheet metal, but a lot cooler in summer. The Ancestral Puebloans plaited these fibers to make cordage or used the soft fibers as padding for their babies’ cradleboards. During times when the distance between survival and death was as narrow as the fibrous material, this inner bark was eaten to stave off starvation.
The Hopi Indians in northeast Arizona consider the cottonwood sacred, and they carve kachina figures into the stout roots. And as the wind rippled through the leaves, these native peoples believe the rustle and quake of the leaves are the words of the gods being spoken to the people.
Though the natives used parts of the cottonwood for clothing or food, they weren’t the only ones to feast upon these trees. Grouse and quail eat the tree’s buds, beavers chew on the trunks and haul limbs to their underwater dens, and porcupines graze on the soft inner bark. A great diversity of bird species build their nests in the tree’s protective limbs, and many a migratory warbler or vireo gleans insects and caterpillars from the tree’s leaves.
So as October exits the Canyon Country and November settles in, the cottonwoods endure. A cold snap might send a cavalcade of leaves spiraling downward signaling the end of another growing season. Until that moment, the cottonwoods will slowly change their outfit from brilliant green to yellow to bare, and these “Trees of Life” will endure another winter gracing the canyons.