Arts Listings

Green Neighbors: Cottonwood: A Roadsign Back East in the West

By Ron Sullivan
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 10:31:00 AM

I trust most of us aren’t fool enough to go hiking the range in the hot spell we’re enduring as I write this. It’s the stuff of the grimmest neo-Old West movies: merciless sun, tantalizing shimmer of mirage (“Don’t you listen to him, Dan/He’s a devil, not a man/And he paints the desert sand/With wa-ater…”), hot wind blowing dust from the east; wait, haven’t we done that rather recently?  

Oh yeah, and water rationing. There’s a mere faint hollow slosh in the ol’ canteen, Dan. It ain’t lookin’ so good on the back forty. 

A row of willows and/or alders in the distance promises a creek. More prominent, and more classically Western, is a row of cottonwoods. You might even get a hint of its presence from a greater distance, the way sailors got a promise of land when they saw gulls. (Saw seagulls? Really, they’re land gulls, bound, unlike albatrosses and similar pelagics, to land masses where they can find fresh water.) On a breezy day, cottonwoods earn their name by casting masses of fluff afloat on the air and water, sailing for miles if the wind’s strong enough. 

It’s not obvious when you see the fluff that it’s anything more than Mother Nature’s little dustbunnies. No surprise though, really: like a lot of strange devices they’re seed transport.  

I was amused a week or so ago to watch mallards, including ducklings, noshing on the little fluffbergs that had sailed down to Putah Creek from the cottonwoods in the UC Davis Arboretum. The ducks must have some way to extract the seed from the conveyance, because they kept at the ones they nabbed and worked them over from one end to the other with their bills, rendering the piles flat and damp, though still floating. They had the damp listless look of used chewing gum, but they were still buoyant enough to float. 

Cottonwoods are members of the genus Populus, sisters to the Lombardy poplars planted in cities and parks and to Populus tremuloides, the quaking aspen of the mountains.  

The pre-European people in California used the cottonwood, of course. It would be among the woods burned as fuel, but it doesn’t make good lumber and I guess would be a bit too soft and absorbent to make good tools. They’re on record as having used mostly the inner layer of the cambium ring to make skirts—it comes apart into tissue—thin strips if you work it right. You’d have to do that carefully if you didn’t want to kill the tree, but then a tradition of conservation would help keep the tree stock in good numbers. So would a relatively low population, compared to how many humans live here now, that is; California is supposed to have been one of the most heavily populated paces in North America before Columbus. 

Young cottonwood shoots were split and twisted into cordage. This is the sort of “low”-tech elegance we tend to be mystified by, as our string is made in a string factory; our ropes, in a rope factory; our houses and boats are held together by nails made in a nail factory and by welds, well, they must come from a weldwell, right? Unless you’re a cradle gourmet, you might remember the moment when you realized that you could make ketchup or mayonnaise, that it wasn’t extruded by some mysterious condiment synthesizer into those bottles.  

Those elegant Ohlone tule boats were bundled and held together by tree fibers, and so were floors, walls, and roofs—“mats”—and ladders, the sort of thing you might find now as art objects in a Japanese or “tribal” antique shop. Building your house of straw and sticks might sound like poor strategy to Europeans, but anyone caught in a house of bricks during an earthquake would have a different take on that. 

That cambium layer makes nutritious stock fodder, too, as European-descended travelers learned from the people they met in western North America. When the grass was under a few feet of snow, deer and elk could be seen stripping the trees, so when the nations east of us on the plains and in the mountains got horses, they knew this strategy already.  

Maybe it’s my advanced age, or my fortune in living on the cusp of centuries and technologies. Looking at such mysterious “folk” know-how on one hand and electronics-geek tech on the other, I’ve come to appreciate that what we tend to call “primitive” is just an artifact of our angle of view.  

The fact that I use Google more than I use what little I’ve learned about how the landscape writes signs and invitations—what trees live by water; what grows in saltmarshes and what in freshwater—is pure happenstance. Who knows? It might even be temporary.