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Red Willow Spirit: New Green for an Old World

Yesterday’s rain, one that fell nearly uninterrupted all day, has brought our earth alive. The birds are everywhere, and everywhere a spreading green is well in evidence.

It’s not just a few stray blades of grass at regular intervals, either; the temperatures are now so warm, and the rain so consistent, that there is as much as green as brown in the ground cover now.

Despite the warmth, our elevation here at Red Willow is a little too steep for leaves yet: The aspens are beaded with cottony catkins, and while the weeping willow branches remain a wintry gold, there is a bulk to them now, a sense of solidity and substance, that heralds their own nascent leafing process. Only a little further south, downslope along the Gorge, though, there may already be a few trees flowering among the rocks.

That was the place where Wings captured today’s images, about a month hence now five years past. Mid-April is more properly when we can expect to see such growth, but things are different now. Last year, we had no green to speak of even then because there had been (and would be) no water.

This year, the earth flowers early: new green for an old world.

Along the Gorge, it’s easy to get a sense of the earth’s age here, rocks banded and trees ringed with the proofs of time long passed (and past). It’s similar in nature to the peaks and their sentries that stand watch over us here, old soldier pines studding slopes not so much aged as ageless, and timeless, too.


The trees indigenous to this land are starkly beautiful: lush evergreens of many sorts; cool spare aspens and weeping willows that bend to kiss the earth. But some of the most striking are the cottonwoods, giant deciduous acrobats that bend and turn and stretch, seemingly always at play with the elements. They grow together, grow apart; twist and turn and seem to dance in place.

There are two species native to this place, Populus fremontii and Populus deltoides wislizeni. They are two of the three species of cottonwoods found in the poplar family, the former spreading toward the southern West Coast, while the latter is colloquially named for our own very local Big River, the Río Grande cottonwood. They are part of the landscape here in a way that most trees in most places are not, keeping watersheds alive and healthy by helping to control erosion. The Indigenous peoples of this land have always known of their gifts: medicine in the inner bark; drums made of the trunks, cut whole and in no need of piecework; katsinam carved of their roots.

Long after a cottonwood has ceased to leaf, its gifts live on in the local habitat. Even when wind weather have stripped the bark, branches and trunk as smooth and leathery as that of an elephant, they withstand fire and water to shelter smaller creatures. The eagles and hawks find in the upper branches a perfect perch for hunting, even as the beavers make use of the base and the fallen branches. These “Dead” trees are alive with a wild beauty that few of their cousins can match, haunting, even eerie beneath a moody gray sky.

Even those young enough to flower possess a presence like few of their kind. Cottonwoods are to the Southwest what cypress trees are to the Southeast — stretching, reaching, a sheltering spirit, one that keeps the land alive and the water healthy. In the two “dead” trees across the highway, a pair of old warriors that host all sorts of living beings year-round, including the raven perched atop the uppermost branches now.

They will, of course, become a source of irritation, too, along about May: cotton everywhere; allergies inflamed. But such is the way with everything good. Inconvenience to the human population is always a given, perhaps to keep us humble, or at least halfway honest. But for most of the year, the blessings outweigh the inconveniences by an order of magnitude.

The cottonwoods perform another service here, too: Like the meadowlark’s first call, their first leaves are proof that, intermittent winter weather notwithstanding, it is truly spring. For the moment, we wait, wait to see their first flowering, to witness new green for an old world once again. It will snow tomorrow, but the old warriors keep us all on schedule and in time.

~ Aji








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