The North Dakota Cottonwood Tree
Written November 2005
Near the east boundary of my ancestral farm near Berlin, North Dakota are remnants of an intended long row of trees. At the north end is the largest, an immense and healthy Cottonwood, a Sequoia of the Prairies.
These trees always intrigued me, but it wasn't until Summer, 2005, that I gave them a closer look, and asked about their history. They were just big trees out in a field.
My Uncle said that the trees were planted in 1934, in the midst of the 'Dirty Thirties,' the Great Depression. A Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crew - recalled as 14 men - planted what was to be a ten acre shelterbelt. Most of the trees didn't survive. Those which remain are in a single broken north-south row.
The big Cottonwood thrived. Why? It dealt with the same conditions its neighbors did: temperatures ranging from perhaps 110 degrees F some summer days down to 40 below zero F some winter nights. All the trees got the same care after planting. There is no visible water source. Only the tree can tell its tale. Likely the tree cheated certain death many times. Season after season the tree shed its leaves, reborn the next spring, each year stronger. Its branches and shade welcomed visitors.
The tree was lucky. At critical times, it got a tiny bit more moisture than its neighbors. It escaped being trampled. Lightning passed it by. Its roots found adequate underground water and nutrients, and its abundant leaves both benefited from and contributed to its evident well-being.
This tree can, I think, stand as a metaphor for our own contemporary U.S. and how we are with each other and the world. It has lessons to teach through its own history, success, strength, and, yes, its own vulnerability.
The Cottonwood is a self-contained 'society' that works. It wisely uses only what it needs from its environment, and all its parts work together for the good of the whole. From the loftiest leaf to the tiniest root hair far underground, every part of the tree is essential to its livelihood. There is not, in this or any tree, a Left, or a Right wing, a winning and a losing side, 'liberal' or 'conservative'. Much of its structure is invisible, but essential to its survival. No leaves say "we're better, and we'll take what we want". Similarly, there are no parts of this tree which live, but decline to be part of its work force. No root or leaf says "I can do this by myself." This tree is a cooperative unit.
This tree holds another lesson, I think: it didn't spring up by accident. Its history is known. Someone on a government work team planted it in 1934, a time of severe poverty in the U.S. 1934 was also a time of peace, at least in the U.S., and a time when U.S. citizens could be isolationist in attitude, feeling our country could live independently of the rest of the world. After all, we still had, for one example, more oil than we could use (now I hear we import 60% of our oil). The Depression shattered some of our 'Roaring Twenties' delusions, at least temporarily. The Depression pulled us more together.
While we don't know the actual person who placed the Cottonwood in the ground back then, he was likely a young man who, if still living, is perhaps 90 years or more old today. This man later dealt with the severe scarcities that went with WWII living, may have been drafted into military service, may have died or been grievously injured in body or mind 'over there.' He may have married, and he and his wife, and legions of husbands and wives of that era raised my generation, building this country into what it is. He and his colleagues and their families were helped by a government program in 1934. Soon after, Social Security was passed, and his generation (and all of us) directly and indirectly benefited from government programs of shared responsibility.
This day in December, 2005, that old Cottonwood stands dormant, prepared for the harshness of its 71st North Dakota winter.
While it rests, perhaps in this tree we can see the roots of our success as a nation: we've been very lucky. Perhaps also in this tree we can see our end as well.
That magnificent tree controls nothing outside its structure. It is totally dependent on external forces. So it is with us in this nation.
Still, too many of us harbor the delusion that we are still in control. We assert the right to use, abuse, manipulate or even destroy our home planet through decisions and choices we are making every day. It has been fun, especially these last few years, to live 'in the moment' in a time of seeming prosperity. It's long past time we consider the responsibility we have for this planet and its future citizens.
Those who follow us will remember us. How they will remember us is the only question.