Growing up in Nebraska can be a lonely and hard thing. Earth and sky are elements made for crushing. Each Nebraska horizon beyond the urban core presents only two images you learn early to avoid and they are both found on the visceral level where trembling and genetics meet blood creating the canvas of dreams and the kindling of hope: Bunches of blue sky crouch and stretch above just out of reach, teasing you over and around in what you imagine the ocean must look and feel like; maturity comes in dry pieces you kick and hold in your hand as dust while down beneath your boots rusty slivers of infertile earth scatter telling of dreams ending in sharp shards and hope dead and undone by a landscape that forgives nothing but rain.
Even though there is beauty in such a view — where you can see firsthand how the sky tempts the land on the horizon — you know in your bones how that conflict between the heavens and the earth killed many pioneers and brought prideful men to tears and honest women to their knees.
You survive the madness of the land and the mocking sky by respecting the power of the nature surrounding you.
You nod to your ancestors entombed in the daylit earth and you wish upon the nighttime stars one day the prairie will release you and forsake your human errors so you can prove your worth beyond the flatlands and into backward backwoods past of the burgeoning and gritty East.
You also learn through the frailty of your forefathers there is only one — and shall always only be one — Monarch of the Plains. Many think the Monarch of the Plains is the American buffalo — or more appropriately — the Nebraska Bison.
Yes, the mighty beast fed many families with muscle, stretched thousands of war bows with sinew and warmed generations of children in curly fur but the real power on the plains, the true Monarch of the Prairie, is the majestic Eastern Cottonwood.
A Cottonwood is more than just a tree. A Cottonwood is the only living thing able to bind earth and sky. A Cottonwood ties the Gods above to the mortals below. A Cottonwood is the bridge the elements use to kindle humankind.
Among the Sioux Indians of the Great Plains, the Cottonwood tree is called the “sacred rustling tree” one of the earthly representations of Wakan-Taka, the Great Spirit. Big Bear has the power of the great Cottonwood to bring luck to people. Cottonwood trunks are always used as the centerpiece of sacred lodges.
To tell a lie under a Cottonwood tree will cause illness to the liar.
Cottonwoods grow two times their size in their first year of life. Their heart-shaped leaves turn upward to the sky to funnel rain down to the ground. When the “cotton is ripe” tufts of cotton — fluff from the stars — float on the breeze like snowflakes miles downwind to re-populate the land with more seedlings and the cycle of life is animated and complete for anyone who cares enough to notice.
If you catch a tuft of cotton floating in the wind on your tongue and then chew it you will be treated to a sweet release. The early pioneers loved the Cottonwoods because they were strong and made great windbreaks against the howling blizzards that beset their beloved land. In an emergency, the wise knew you could cut the bark of a Cottonwood and stored water would come gushing out of the gash.
Those who held that secret knew the Cottonwood as “The Giver of Life.” As technology advanced and the pioneers became farmers and the farmers became businessmen, the Cottonwood fell out of favor with its tenders because its constant need for lots of water drew precious groundwater from the land and the crops died of thirst. You can sell crops through many seasons.
You can only sell a mature Cottonwood once. The crops won the battle for the land commerce beat a fountain of life and the Cottonwood began to disappear from the landscape as they were killed to become kindling and timber. The remaining Cottonwoods became sensitive to disease without other Cottonwoods to help repopulate the nation and so many Cottonwoods died alone on the prairie with branches reaching up in vain to once again touch the heavens into the earth and the great Cottonwood became a ghostly grey skeleton with outstretched arms testifying to the grandness of nature and to the pettiness of humankind.