We once traveled to Montana where I met a remarkable man who introduced me to “Witness” trees. In that particular case, the storyteller was talking about 1000 or 2000-year-old pine trees that oversaw pack trains led first by native people and later by miners and then hunters heading into the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
On his property, he had several of these old forest sentinels, including one that towered to the heavens where its branches danced in breezes I couldn’t feel at ground level. If I looked carefully, I could see the marks and scrapes of passing panniers high up the trunk. Indians had used the trail passing through his property for centuries, and then our friend had led hunters on quests for big game in the mountains that rose behind his cabin. That old growth foliage told stories if anyone cared to read inscriptions scratched in ancient bark.
As soon as I learned about these, I recalled a cottonwood I’d discovered near my home in western Kansas. It was a towering, behemoth with a trunk over 23 feet around. Though that cottonwood couldn’t be nearly as old as Ed’s “Witnesses,” it too had stories to tell.
Decades ago, a lightning strike, side effect of mighty prairie thunder boomers, had jaggedly scarred this tree from the top to bottom. Additional knots and dings indicated other injuries to it. Mammals and insects had taken advantage and made homes in resulting crevices and cracks.
In addition to these observable marks, I wondered what other tales this tree could tell. How many Cheyenne women and children had it shaded during broiling midday suns. A friend found their stone tools left behind in a nearby field. Buffalo wandering over the prairie, looking to wear away their winter coats, would have rubbed against this tree’s corky, fire-resistant bark. I suspect soldiers guarding the nearby railroad napped under its branches. How it survived droughts during the 30s, 50s, and now, I don’t know.
Less than a mile away, a grove of trees, once a favored picnic spot of Ellis old timers, stands. None of them compares in size to this western Kansas giant, so I know it is old. After this tree triggered my curiosity, I wanted to learn more about cottonwoods. What I discovered surprised me.
Early travelers were glad to spot either a lone tree or a stand of trees. One or many provided welcome shade. In addition, pioneers could find fallen branches to burn instead of buffalo chips typically used for prairie cooking. Most importantly, cottonwood trees can’t grow without a reliable source of water. Spotting one meant finding this necessary resource.
Before white travelers crossed what was then known as “The Great American Desert,” migrating Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Sioux sheltered under these trees growing along western Kansas streams and seeps. In dire circumstances such as deep snow or extended drought, their bark and leaves served as livestock forage. According to Elliot West in The Way West, increased human traffic along the Platte and the Arkansas spelled disaster for most of the early groves
Cottonwoods are more remarkable than I first thought. Simply becoming a tree qualifies them as a “Witness” tree. Their propagation technique is noteworthy. Every spring, male trees unleash a barrage of nearly invisible pollen carried by the wind to the flowers of the female tree. Once pollinated, the flowers mature into necklaces of fruits that we see dangling from female trees.
After a period of incubation,hose fruits explode, unleashing clouds of feathery white seeds that clog filters, coat cars and houses, and hopefully deliver at least one into ideal sprouting conditions. Each female tree has hundreds of fruits filled with thousands of potential cottonwoods, which explains why one Montana Forest Service employee called this the “shotgun approach” to reproduction.
These offspring have no food reserves, so they must immediately find a sunny spot in moist, loose soil if there is hope for them to mature. Once one manages to land in optimal conditions, a root sprouts and begins to grow.
Hard times aren’t over yet for these guys. Cottonwood trees possess a high sugar content, which makes them desirable as critter candy to munchers, grazers, and browsers. If the seedling somehow avoids a snacking deer, elk, cow, or rodent, it faces danger from winter ice and periodic drought.
The fact this massive tree shading Big Creek survived so long amazes me. Learning about cottonwoods makes it clear why native people such as the Lakota, Cheyenne, Hopi, and Navajo consider them sacred. The Lakota use one as the center pole in their Sundance Ceremony. Hopis make their Kachinas from roots that have washed loose.
Such connections to others’ beliefs explains the sense of the sacred I feel when I see these Kansas “Witness” trees. Now I just have to imagine the stories they can tell.