the cottonwood tree

Growing up outside Galesville, WI, tucked into a small valley, I was in awe of the flat open expanse of the La Crosse marsh. It was always a special occasion to load my brother and I and some of our friends in our station wagon and have a picnic at Myrick Park, but I always found myself standing on the edge of the trails, the toes of my shoes barely in the water, looking out across the marsh to the bluffs on the other side. We were never allowed on the trails because at 8 years old, you couldn’t convince us not to jump in the algae or chase birds. I am lucky enough now to live right on the northwest edge of the marsh, a walking trail practically in my backyard.  

In the middle of the marsh, on an aptly named trail, is an old cottonwood tree that I have gone back to visit year after year since I was about 20 years old. 

The fastest way to get there is by taking the paved Grand Crossing trail but it’s not nearly as beautiful. It seems more fitting to start on the other side of the park and walk the gravel and dirt Cottonwood trail. If it’s been dry, little dust clouds float around your feet as you walk. The trees and grass on either side of the trail will be a little droopy and a deep, dark green. The water will be green with algae floating on the surface and if you watch carefully, you can see turtles hiding among the logs and driftwood. Usually I just hear their splash as they slide back into the water because I was making too much noise. If it’s rained recently you have to be careful not to slide around in the mud. I usually stay off the trails on those days for fear of damaging them. The perfect day to walk the trails is about two days after it’s rained, hopefully its sunny with a few puffy clouds floating by. 

You’ll walk about half a mile towards a shady clump of trees in the distance. After a few turns you will come to right angle in the path and standing majestically over this crossroads is a cottonwood tree. It stands well over a 100 feet tall, its canopy blocking out the sun for most of the day. The bark is not smooth; instead the trunk is marked with deep grooves, almost like a giant cat has used it as a scratching post. Cottonwood trunks are hollow so you can always see birds and small critters coming and going from their shelter within the tree.

Most people never see the most unique part of this tree. If you leave the train and walk around to the back side of the tree and look carefully at its base, you’ll see a fairy door; a patch of bark lighter in color that looks like it has hinges, doorknob, and even a little curtained window. I discovered this door when I first saw the tree as a child (*I can’t remember how young I was*) and I instantly believed that fairies made a home in this tree and it was a doorway into their realm. I’ve chosen to hold onto this belief, because really, who wants to completely give up the possibility of a little magic in the world. 

In many Native American stories, the cottonwood tree is a symbol of hope. The cottonwood tells us we must remember that we are all connected as one community, to count our blessings, and to have hope for the future. This is how we will get through trying times to find peace together on the other side. This message seems fitting for the current times we are living through.  

Every spring when the trails reopen for the season, I can’t wait to get back to the marsh to say hello to the cottonwood tree and welcome in another new year with new hopes and new dreams. 

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