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.

Nebraska Land and Sky

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.

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.

Nebraska Cottonwood

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.

24 Comments

  1. I’ve never thought of cottonwood trees as being the “Monarchs of the Plains.”
    We see trees every day, but don’t think of them as tying heaven and earth together. They are often objects to make our land beautiful or resources to be cut down and made into houses or paper. But, since tree are so commonplace, we don’t realize their value. They’ll always be around, we seem to think.
    In many ways, we are like the farmers and business people who caused the demise of the Monarch of the Plains.

  2. Hi Chris!
    Yes, we are crushed by the land and if we try to fight back we may defeat nature momentarily but we make ourselves less in the lesson in the long run.
    The problem with trees is they take so long to grow into being useful! If we destroy them as we wish with no plan to replace them then we are sacrificing our future for the now and that rarely pays anything everlasting.
    Arthur Miller, the great American playwright —
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2005/05/29/missing-arthur-miller/
    — raised trees as a hobby. He planted 6,000 trees 28 (now 40!) years ago on his property in CT and a forest grew around him. It’s a beautiful story as told in his TIMEBENDS biography published around 1990:

    There is more unbroken forest from Canada down to here than there was even in Lincoln’s youth, the farms having gradually vanished, and there is even the odd bear, they say, a wanderer down from the north, and now these coyotes. I have seen them….
    And so the coyotes are out there earnestly trying to arrange their lives to make more coyotes possible, not knowing that it is my forest, of course. And I am in this room from which I can sometimes look out at dusk and see them warily moving through the barren winter trees, and I am, I suppose, doing what they are doing, making myself possible and those who come after me. At such moments I do not know whose land this is that I own, or whose bed I sleep in. In the darkness out there they see my light and pause, muzzles lifted, wondering who I am and what I am doing here in this cabin under my light. I am a mystery to them until they tire of it and move on, but the truth, the first truth, probably, is that we are all connected, watching one another. Even the trees.

    http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1016/is_n3-4_v97/ai_10555230

  3. Hey Gordon!
    Thanks for the good words. I always value and appreciate your feedback.
    This was a technically difficult thing to write and it took me a bit longer than I thought it would because it was only going to be about Cottonwoods but then I realized I had to bend time a little more to set the story right for those who are unaware of the history of the American Midwest.
    So I started off with the land, then I move to history of the people then we slide into the history of mythology with the bison and the Cottonwood then we lurch forward a bit to where we are now and then sidle back around again to the power of the land and sky to crush trees and humankind.

  4. Hi David. I am sorry I’m late in coming here. I usually get to read you earlier in the day. What you said to Gordon about structure and style is good reading. How a piece fits together technically doesn’t mean a piece doesn’t have an emotional core too.

  5. Hi Anne!
    I am always thrilled to hear from you and I appreciate your insight.
    Right. An effective piece with a strong emotional core doesn’t mean there isn’t a really precise technical aspect to the work. It oftentimes takes more dedication to give a piece some emotional punch than to just leave it cold and factual.

  6. Adding the emotion is always hard. You never know if your emotion will match your readers’ or not. I guess you hope the specific will have some impact on the world view of the work.

  7. I believe there are certain human rhythms that every human shares no matter the emotional perspective or cultural training or economic indoctrination. The trick is to learn how to use them and then effectively employ them in your work.

  8. I live here in Nebraska and by far the Cottonwood is my favorite tree. Yes I am bias, and after what you wrote…I do not know anyone who could be bias now. Thank you very much…I rather enjoyed your writing
    Kyle