This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
We cultured folk have far too many matters of importance in our busy lives to pay attention to cottonwoods, those silver-haired elderly trees that dot the land above the bluffs all along the Mississippi Valley. And that's exactly the way the cottonwoods want it. Of all the defense mechanisms evolved by plants to protect themselves from predators, the cottonwood's is perhaps the most simple and unique: it is perfectly useless. That's why we allow them to live on into old age, rising fifty feet or more above the prairie, simply because there isn't anything a cottonwood can do that another tree can't do better.
The cottonwood grows too high for a yard tree; oak makes much sturdier furniture; walnut's color is far richer; cherry has a much more pleasing grain. Cottonwood burns too fast for the fireplace, and its branches are too weak and too far up to hang a swing. Its solitary habit makes it difficult and uneconomical to harvest. Its fruit won't even make good jam.
Having nothing to fear from human predators, the cottonwood stands tall in the landscape, a wonderful lookout for crows who gather in its branches to spend the night and plan the next day's activities.
Doesn't the cottonwood have any value at all, you ask? Yes, if you count children on the way to school. For a week each May, when children are growing restless from a long winter of reading, writing and arithmetic, the cottonwoods bloom, and send their seed fuzz floating thick through the air like a late spring snow, so much fuzz that it collects in drifts along the curbs and cracks in sidewalks and on early spring flowers. Two or three trees seem to be enough to blanket an entire school district with cottonwood snow, enough for children to run after, trying to keep the flakes from falling by fanning the air with school books, enough to stomp in, or collect in handfuls and try to stuff down each other's collars, allowing children to calm down and finish the school year.
Even here the cottonwood is thinking ahead. Allowed to finish their schooling, children gradually become cultured. By high school, they have already forgotten the cottonwood and its May snowstorm, and the cottonwood is safe for another generation.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.