The Cottonwood Tree

My wife’s parents are visiting for Nate’s graduation. They have spent most of their lives on or near the prairie of southwest Minnesota. I believe that the deeply wooded suburbs of Boston are not altogether pleasing to their spirits.  Yesterday, somehow, we started talking about cottonwood trees. The rattling sound the leaves make and of course the “cotton” they drop. The cottonwoods are the big strong natives surviving on the riverbanks that wind through the prairie grass.

Bill Holm (1943-2009)    was a poet and scholar who wrote out of the prairie where Kirsten’s father and I grew up, and where Kirsten’s father remained. Here’s a bit of an essay by Holm on the prairie, one of his favorite subjects.

I was raised in Minnesota, true prairie country. When settlers arrived in the 1870’s they found waist-high grass studded with wild flowers; the only trees were wavy lines of cottonwoods and willows along the crooked Yellow Medicine Creek. Farmers emigrated here not for scenery, but for topsoil; 160 flat acres without trees or boulders to break plows and cramp fields was beautiful to them. They left Norway, with its picturesque but small, poor, steep farms; or Iceland, where the beautiful back-yard mountains frequently covered hay fields with lava and volcanic ash. Wives, described by Ole Rolvaag in Giants in the Earth, were not enamored with the beauty of black topsoil, and frequently went insane from loneliness, finding nowhere to hide on these blizzardy plains. But the beauty of this landscape existed in function, rather than form, not only for immigrant farmers, but for Indians who preceded them.

There are two eyes in the human head – the eye of mystery, and the eye of harsh truth – the hidden and the open – the woods eye and the prairie eye. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light; the woods eye for closeness, complexity, and darkness. The prairie eye looks for usefulness and plainness in art and architecture; the woods eye for the baroque and ornamental. Dark old brownstones on Summit Avenue were created by a woods eye; the square white farmhouse and red barn are prairie eye’s work. Sherwood Anderson wrote his stories with a prairie eye, plain and awkward, told in the voice of a man almost embarrassed to be telling them, but bullheadedly persistent to get at the meaning of the events; Faulkner, who endless complicates motive and language, takes the reader miles behind the simple facts of an event, sees the world with a woods eye. One eye is not superior to the other, but they are different. To some degree, like male and female, darkness and light, they exits in all human heads, but one or the other seems dominant. The Manicheans were not entirely wrong.

I have a prairie eye. Dense woods or mountain valleys make me nervous. After once visiting Burntside Lake north of Ely for a week, I felt a fierce longing to be out. Driving home in the middle of the night, I stopped the car south of Willmar, when woods finally fell away and plains opened up. It was a clear night, lit by a brilliant mood turning blowing grasses silver. I saw for miles – endless strings of yardlights, star fallen into the grovetops. Alone, I began singing at the top of my voice. I hope neither neighborhood cows, nor the Kandiyohi Country sheriff were disturbed by this unseemly behavior from a grown man. It was simply cataracts removed from the prairie eye with a joyful rush.      —Horizontal Grandeur by Bill Holm

Minnesota prairie

Perhaps you have noticed that even
n the very lightest breeze
you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree;
this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit,
for not only men, but all things and all beings
pray to Him continually in differing ways.
– Black Elk

One thought on “The Cottonwood Tree

  1. Just a magnificent description of the prairie. So deeply poetic uttered by a spirit obviously deeply connected to what he loves. I must say I warm to his love for the open spaces of the prairie. For me it’s the great plains of Africa. Lovely post thank you.


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