Thursday, August 23, 2012

Witness Tree

           This summer we traveled to Montana where I met a remarkable man who introduced me to the concept of the “Witness” tree.  In that particular case, the storyteller was talking about 1000 or 2000 year old pine trees marking passing pack trains led first by Indians and later by miners and then hunters heading into the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

            On his property, he had several old witness trees, one that towered seemingly to the heavens where its branches danced to breezes I could not feel at ground level.  He was right.  If I looked carefully, I could see the marks and scrapes of passing panniers.  Indians had used the trail passing through his property for centuries, and then he himself had led hunters on their quests for big game in the mountains that rose behind his cabin.

         Those witness trees told a story if anyone cared to read the inscriptions in the ancient bark. As soon as I learned about “Witness Trees,” I began to think of a tree I discovered in western Kansas, a towering, old cottonwood with a trunk over 21 feet around. Though that cottonwood cannot be anywhere nearly as old as Ed’s “Witness” trees, it has stories to tell if I listen.

            A jagged lightning strike scar runs down the tree from the top to bottom, a result of mighty thunder boomers that occur occasionally on open prairie.  I have stood at the window watching flashes of lightning followed instantaneously by thunder. 

            A number of scars indicate other injuries to this old tree.  Critters took advantage and made homes in crevices and cracks, adding their stories to the tree’s.  Years ago, I took my mom to see this tree.  Somehow she didn’t duck when she should have or ducked when she shouldn’t have, and she left behind enough scalp to warrant six stitches.  On later visits to the tree, I find her salt and pepper hair snagged in the branch that wounded her.

            I have wondered what other stories this tree could tell.  It must have shaded Indian women and children from the sun.  An old friend used to find their stone tools in a nearby field.  Buffalo wandering about the prairie, looking to wear away their winter coats, must have rubbed against the corky, fire resistant bark. I suspect soldiers guarding the railroad found time for a nap under its branches.  How it survived the years of drought during the 30’s, 50’s and now, I don’t know. 

            Not too far away, a whole grove of trees, once a favored picnic spot of the old timers, stands.  None of them comes close to the size of this western Kansas “Witness” tree, so I know it is old. 
            Recently, because this tree triggered my curiosity, I wanted to find out more about cottonwoods. What I learned surprised me.

            Early travelers were glad to spot either a lone tree or a stand of trees, which provided shade from the harsh prairie sun.  In addition, they found firewood to burn instead of buffalo chips they typically used for prairie cooking.  Most importantly, cottonwood trees can’t grow without a steady source of water.  Spotting a cottonwood tree meant finding water. 

            Before white travelers crossed what was then known as “The Great American Desert,” traveling Indians found shelter under these trees along Kansas streams and seeps.  In dire circumstances such as deep snow or extended drought, the 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

            After my research, I find cottonwoods more remarkable than I first thought.  Simply becoming a tree should qualify them as a “Witness” tree.  The most obvious fact that I should have pieced together is the way they propagate.  Every spring, the 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 dangling fruits that we see each spring hanging from the female trees. 

After a period of incubation or some such thing (more like a kernel of popcorn resting on a hot skillet), the fruits explode, unleashing a barrage of feathery white seeds that clog filters, coat cars and houses, and hopefully send at least one seed into ideal sprouting conditions. Each female tree has hundreds of fruits filled with thousands of seeds, which explains why one Montana Forest Service employee called this the “shotgun approach” to reproduction.

            These seeds have no food reserves, so they must immediately find a sunny spot in moist, loose soil if there is any hope for them to become trees.  Once it manages to find a site along a stream or seep, the root takes hold and a tree begins to grow. 

            Hard times aren’t over yet for these guys.  Cottonwood trees have 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 the dangers of winter ice and periodic drought.

            The fact that the huge tree we discovered still lives amazes me.  Learning about these trees helps me understand why native people such as the Lakota, Hopi, and Navajo consider the cottonwood sacred.  The Lakota use a cottonwood as the center pole in their Sundance Ceremony.  Hopis make their Kachinas from cottonwood roots that have washed loose. 

No wonder I feel a sense of the sacred when I rest under these Kansas “Witness” trees.  

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