Friday, August 16, 2013

A Walk in the Woods

Whether a green plumage of life in the summer or a convoluted tangle of limbs in the winter, the Cottonwood Tree represents a special and vital part of the Yellowstone Valley ecosystem.  They can always be found near water, playing a fundamental role in the health of riparian zones (areas of intense diversity that are only found near water).  Walking among them, one feels the life that emanates from the great towers, from the great Bald Eagles and Ospreys that sit upon an upturned branch looking across the river for dinner, down to the small insects like the cotton borer that crawl within the tree, eating their way along the bark and leaving behind intricate lines similar to those of a lost civilization. 
Their great limbs provide a bird haven, for the foliage is so thick that often all you can do is listen to their calls and hope to catch a quick glimpse of a feather as they flit amongst the branches.  As you listen, you will also hear the constant chatter of a squirrel as it scrambles around, looking for food and constructing their homes that from below look like a lump of leaves resting amongst the branches.  Even in death, the Cottonwood is a constant provider, giving flickers and downy woodpeckers a place to live and scrounge for bugs.  Walking further into the grove, you might find an old burnt spot where the foliage below has been burned away, but the Cottonwood still stands strongly, its thick bark protecting it from all but the most intense of flames. 

Suddenly and unexpectedly you find yourself at the river’s edge, appearing to mingle amongst the Cottonwoods as if it too were one of the giants.  The river, a constant and powerful force that is always looking to expand its borders and delve deep into the inland, is held at bay as the Cottonwood’s great roots stand strong against the great current.  It is these roots that act as guardians of the riparian zone, refusing to be swept away by the whims of the water, and it is these roots that trap the water underground to keep it and the plants around it sustained in times of drought.  However, no force is truly impenetrable, and eventually the rivers wash away the great Cottonwoods, sending them downstream to complete yet another great service.  As a great Cottonwood floats down the river, looking like a great battering ram 5 feet in diameter easily over 100 feet tall ready to crush even the mightiest of castles, it eventually hits a point in the river and jams itself in.  Over time, more and more trees become part of the great dam in the river and slowly but surely they cut down the speed of the river, thus creating a resting point for fish and a brand new riparian zone.  When the water is slowed by these great dams, it pools behind them into great wetlands, which act as a natural purifier for the water.  As it comes to a standstill, the water slowly percolates through the soil and gathers in underground aquifers, ready to be utilized by stretching roots of a plant or to bubble out of a spring, cleaner and fresher than any water treatment plant can make it.  The wetlands created by the dammed Cottonwoods are also ripe territory for new Cottonwoods to grow and start the whole process over again, all it that is required is seeds, and Cottonwoods have plenty.  Have you ever seen the snow fall in the summer, thick and fluffy?  Well, either you were in Montana, you were actually seeing “cotton” seeds from a Cottonwood tree or both.  For the entire month of June every female Cottonwood tree produces thousands of seeds encased within a fluffy cotton-like substance that is carried by the wind far and wide covering entire landscapes with a layer of “snow”. 
Working your way back from the water’s edge and back in the direction you hope is the one you came in, you can feel the history of the Cottonwoods, whose lifespans reach over 100 years.  You can imagine Lewis and Clark making their great trek across the unknown, floating down the river in great canoes made from the ancestors of the trees towering above you.  The Cottonwood Tree is a giver, providing life for many.  But it gives more than just a place to perch, more than just a dam in a river.  It is a giver of happiness, of lessons, of good times to be had, of legacy.  The next time you take a walk in the woods, look up to these Giving Trees, ask yourself, “what to do they give me?”.  More importantly, ask yourself “what do I give them”.   

By Jeremy Brooks
High School Naturalist in Training
Summer 2013

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