Posted by: atowhee | May 30, 2008

The Cottonwood and the meaning of life, at least along Bear Ceek

The cottonwood tree is one towering symbol of the American West.  Those who crossed the Great Plains by wagon train knew they were no longer in the Midwest when the cottonwood became the highest point on the horizon.  Cottonwood trees and the streams along which they grew marked the trails our forefathers followed if they crossed America before the railroad.  That was before airplanes for the young ‘uns.

“To understand this mountain world, one must start far away at the Mississippi River where the Great Plains begin to slope toward the Rocky Mountain, come west across Missouri to Kansas, where there is more space than there are towns, where the horizon line is blurred by tall grass and grain, punctuated by silos, church spires, and cottonwoods growing along the streams.”                                                        -BEYOND THE ASPEN GROVE by Ann Zwinger

To some the American West is best symbolized by towering mountains, Rockies or Sierra, Cascades or even Siskiyous.  To some it’s a place of aridity and sparse vegetation.  To many here in the northwest it’s seemingly endless hillsides covered with dense evergreen forest.  To others it may be stark rocky buttes, canyons, wind-eroded spires.  But among the living things, the cottonwood stands tall next to the grizzly, the American bison, the pronghorn.  And it alone every spring casts its wealth and future to the winds.

You think I had spots on my lens?  No, that’s the fuzzy little puffs of cottonwood cottonwool floating on a still spring morning.  Each little flying parasol contains a single seed, just released by a female cottonwood along Bear Creek.  Each seed will float yards, or miles, on its nearly weightless fibers.  Then some will come to rest in a damp, welcoming spot and they too will become cottonwoods up to a hundred feet tall.  We live in a canyon a half-mile from this creek and the nearest cottonwoods.  We are two hundred feet higher in elevation.  Yet each day now I see these white fluffs lazily moving across our garden, continung their uphill glide in the face of gravity, defying the void.

And so these cottonwoods loyally mark the line of Bear Creek as they do many rivers and unnamed washes across two-thirds of the American continent.  These are black cottonwoods, Populus trichocarpa.  There may even be something symbolic to be seen in the tree’s heart-shaped leaves, its sweet-smelling resin that covers each spring bud and then perfumes the air on a mild March day.  This is a tree of generosity, taking water where there is little, giving shade, shelter and food to lesser beings.

 And this male Bullock’s Oriole can certainly be counted as a founding member of the Order of Cottonwood Lovers.  They feed, nest and sing within the green shlter of the cottonwoods along the streams that attract these birds in the first place. 


Here is an oriole nest found along Bear Creek:

 Yes, this nest is hanging in a cottonwood tree.  Another bird nesting in the cottonwoods along Ashland and Bear Creeks:

American Kestrel.





There is still a lot of birdsong, today it was mild, no rain in the morning and the birds seemed pleased to report on the overnight activities or speak of things yet to come.  Black-headed Grosbeaks and Bullock’s Orioles were the loudest.  But Song Sparrows, Spotted Towhees, Lesser Goldfinches’ sad little downcast whistle, Red-winged Blackbirds, churlish whistles from Starlings, lisping whistles from Yellow Warblers–lots to hear.  And in the background, monotonous but ne’er melodious, was my mosquito-munching pal, Western Wood-peewee.  Keep on keeping on, with your flycatching.  But you can leave off the song practice–a voice, an ear for song?  Not in the DNA. 

Location:     Bear Valley Greenway–Ashland
Observation date:     5/30/08
Number of species:     30

Wood Duck     2
Mallard     1
California Quail     1
Great Blue Heron     1
Turkey Vulture     2
Red-tailed Hawk     2
American Kestrel     1
Rock Pigeon     2
Mourning Dove     3
Anna’s Hummingbird     1
Acorn Woodpecker     1
Downy Woodpecker     1
Western Wood-Pewee     4
Western Scrub-Jay     2
Tree Swallow     20
Barn Swallow     1
Bushtit     3
Bewick’s Wren     5
American Robin     1
European Starling     35
Yellow Warbler     3
Spotted Towhee     8
Song Sparrow     8
Black-headed Grosbeak     6
Red-winged Blackbird     16
Brewer’s Blackbird     20
Brown-headed Cowbird     3
Bullock’s Oriole     10
Lesser Goldfinch     15
House Sparrow     11

This report was generated automatically by eBird v2(


  1. The other name for cottonwoods was “widow makers” because of their unfortunate tenancy to lose large limbs without warning. Legends have it that many husbands would lose their lives while gathering wood under cottonwoods.

  2. I work for the Bureau of Land Management in Idaho and was searching the web for interpretive language related to cottonwood galleries. We are in the process of creating interpretive signage at various recreation sites along the Salmon River and our interpretive specialist needed help. I liked the way your site told a story, educating and informing along the way, and was wondering if you’d consider drafting a 50 word “story” on cottonwoods for inclusion on our sign?

  3. […] Cottonwood: […]

  4. […] Cottonwoods–some years back I wrote about the black cottonwoods found along water courses here… […]

  5. […] Today I saw the cotton wool drift down from cottonwoods at Joe Dancer Park.  First of the fuzz that will soon fill curbs, grassy pockets, trail furrows.An old blog about cottonwoods, now 12 years old but still timely. […]

  6. […] Click here for my ancient love letter to the cottonwood and its work. […]

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