In 2002, my father transplanted what he believed were Linden saplings to serve as shade to the west of our house. As they grew, it was clear they were cottonwood trees, instead. He was disappointed. My father said cottonwoods were dirty trees and because they grew tall, they would serve as lightning rods in a bad way. We were not even sure they would live out that autumn, as a species of caterpillar hatched and cleaned their branches of leaves. One survived intact, while the other developed multi-forked suckers. They now compete to outgrow the loose-leaf hickory nut tree separated by a barbed wire fence from grazing cattle. For more than half a century, that tree has grown in what was once pasture and a place to store farm implements, and it releases its hard-shelled seeds later in the year than cottonwoods for squirrels to hoard.
While they might not have been what my father intended, over the decades, around Memorial Day, he could watch the cottonwood pits drift in the wind, catching the sun, gathering in the yard like a sheen of snow.
This weekend, after another year has passed, I stood on my parents’ land as my daughter Jasmine climbed the old steps to the back door, and the seeds fell before us. I picked up one thick pod and allowed my sons Wes and Grant to touch the fiber. They feel finer than cotton, almost like silk. The wind carried the seeds down the lane to Garden Road and beyond, where near Medicine Creek more Cottonwoods climb above the bottom that gets flooded after a heavy enough rain. Sometimes the water rises over the road. Other times, Medicine Creek is dry enough to stand still, pools separated by sand and debris from past washes.
My father and I once woke early in the morning to watch a meteor shower. He was always up by at least three o’clock anyway, fixing a pot of coffee and reading a book about gunfights in the Wild West. It was his favorite part of the day. The night sky was clear enough we saw each shooting star catch fire and disintegrate, leaving the memory of its path on my retina if I closed my eyes. We waited for the end.
“There’s one,” my father would say to extend our stargazing a few more minutes, swirling his coffee in either his Pioneer Seed cup, or the mug we bought him for Christmas that read, “I only get mean and nasty when I don’t get my way.”
Not being a morning person, I went back to sleep while my father prepared the tractor, harrow, windrower, bale mover, plow, or whatever else needed oiled and primed to begin farm work at first light. Other times he drove the roads slow and visited with his buddies in Powersville, Allerton, Corydon or wherever men were gathered to eat breakfast and drink coffee. He could take or leave your company without a second thought. It was part of his charm. You liked him because he didn’t care whether you liked him.
This spring, I could have stood for millennia allowing cottonwood seeds to catch the afternoon’s sunlight, which was itself refracted through clouds and spread by wind to drift around my children. They picked the fibers from the front lawn to stare at in reverence. It was like admiring the sun or life itself. For me, it was close to the peace that passes understanding. Nothing that we reason can get us near that moment of rapture. Our five senses raise it to consciousness, yet in the end the senses must be shed to appreciate its clarity and true nature. They are an impediment to hiking farther up the hill from the Mississippi River with my brother on Memorial Day weekend of 2001, the air filled with cottonwood seeds and my mind fogged with worries that stuck to me even though I was in Wisconsin.
“All time is eternally present,” T.S. Eliot writes in words that cannot end.