GRAND FORKS — There comes the day in every summer when the cottonwood trees release their seeds. It's a moment that both seems to stop time and marks it all at once. It is familiar to everyone who watches nature on the Plains, and probably to many whose preoccupations lie elsewhere. The event defines the Plains. It is evocative, a kind of signature moment.
The seeds are small, and they’re surrounded by a fluff, like cotton, that gives the trees their name. There are several cottonwood species, but they all produce this fluff, which take flight with the slightest movement of air, drifting languidly and laterally through the air as if they are suspended — and so is time. The annual cottonwood fall prompts a kind of reverie, about how things are and how they could be.
That is why Clay Jenkinson named his latest book “The Language of Cottonwoods.”
At the same time, the event signals that the year has moved along. Cottonwood fall occurs just before the Fourth of July and, usually, just ahead of the season’s hottest weather. It’s a kind of boundary between spring and summer, past and future.
This year the moment came at mid-afternoon on Saturday, June 26. By early evening, the sparse traffic on County Road 33 had whisked the seeds into drifts of white against the margins of the roadway. This is the reason I call the seeds “summer snow.”
The Russians have a shorter word for it, Clay Jenkinson points out. They call it “pookh.” Jenkinson asserts that Moscow has 100,000 cottonwood trees. As it happens, I saw the cottonwood fall in Moscow when I was on a journalists’ exchange there. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is responsible for Moscow’s cottonwood trees, by Jenkinson’s account. He writes, “The sheer volume of pookh in Moscow has become both a nuisance and something of a public health hazard. Some call it ‘FDR’s revenge’ ….”
City officials in the Plains states share this view. Planting cottonwoods is forbidden by ordinance in many North Dakota cities, including Bismarck, the state capital. Elsewhere in the state, outside its cities, cottonwood trees are commonplace.
Probably no species has had a more dramatic impact on the state than the cottonwood. Indigenous people fed cottonwood branches to their horses, helping them survive the winter. Members of the Lewis and Clark fashioned serviceable watercraft by hollowing out the trunks of cottonwood trees, creating dugouts that they used to ascend the Missouri River. Homesteaders made use of them, too, in at least one case as a kind of post office. Settlers left messages for one another in a hollow in a cottonwood tree that was visible for miles on the otherwise treeless prairie. Cottonwoods grow rapidly, and they were used as metes and bounds on the prairie. At our place, two of these giants survive. They mark the northern corners of the lot. We lost a third tree in a windstorm several years ago. The fourth died and collapsed before we moved here. The trunk lies out in what we call “the rough,” a tangle of grass and shrubs.
Shelter may be the greatest contribution that cottonwoods have made. Cottonwood logs framed the earth lodges of the Indigenous people of the Missouri River Valley, and they formed the walls of immigrant homes. And there are the shelterbelts that keep the wind at bay, at least some of the time.
In addition to all of this, the cottonwood provides perspective, dividing the otherwise undivided landscape into manageable landscape views. And the wind in the cottonwoods? The rustling of cottonwood leaves is a signature sound in North Dakota. Cottonwoods are seldom silent. Even the slightest breeze shakes their leaves, and the noise helps establish a sense of place.
Jenkinson’s book is broader than its title. “The Language of Cottonwoods” is a deep examination of North Dakota’s current situation. His essential question is, who are we now that “the agrarian lifeway that nourished our values has largely disappeared?” He lists these values as “modesty, neighborliness, practical skillfulness, gumption, good sense, integrity, stoicism, resourcefulness.”
In 12 chapters, an appendix and nearly 400 pages, Jenkinson plucks examples of the challenges facing the state. These are both wry and serious, soul-searching and money making.
In his preface, Jenkinson writes, “If you are a North Dakotan, please read this book through because it is important that we have conversations about our beloved state: its history, its landscape, its habits of the heart, its future, its spirit of place, its realties with the Native Americans who constitute 6 percent of the population. … Please don’t be offended by the ironies in several of the essays. We have to have a sense of humor about ourselves to live in such an improbable place.”
That is exactly what “The Language of Cottonwoods” accomplishes. Further than that, I can say no more.
Full disclosure: Jenkinson and I have been friends for more than 50 years. He flattered me by asking me to provide a forward for his book.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.