I love trees. I have a Tolkien-esque appreciation of them, forming emotional attachments to particular trees in the way that most people do to pets. I love the many-toothed leaf mosaic of silver maples, the deeply-creviced bark of pin oaks, the minty taste of sassafras twigs, the towering heights of a Douglas fir, the tart fruit of the mulberry. But if I had to pick a favorite kind of tree, I would say cottonwoods.
These huge, fast-growing trees love the river, and survive through the summers even when they’re knee-deep in flood waters. Their knotty limbs give homes to squirrels and orioles, food to woodpeckers and beetles, and lookout spots to birds of prey. Cottonwoods turn green before the other trees stir in the spring, and in mid-August, the large heart-shaped leaves begin to fade to yellow before the signs of autumn show up anywhere else. In between, they release their seeds in clouds of cotton, much to the chagrin of anyone with allergies. In late spring, when I walk through the park, it looks like it’s snowing.
My favorite part about cottonwood trees, though, are the way their leaves move in the wind. The leaves have a long stem and a waxy finish, so when the breeze stirs them, they flutter wildly, clacking against each other, their shiny surfaces catching the sunlight. As a kid I called them “tambourine trees” because of their glimmering movement and the magical clattering sound.
Last weekend, I walked through Frontier Park in the morning, watching the river gleam silver under the cloudy sky. I felt a rush of honestly cool air— something I hadn’t felt since spring— and I heard the cottonwood leaves rattle in the wind. I looked up to see the yellow-tipped leaves tossing back and forth. I breathed out into the cool air, and felt my eyes grow watery. Summer is drawing to an close. Autumn is coming.