Riverdave's Journal
September 6, 2009
     Early this summer I was captivated by the presence of a double trunk cottonwood tree that I found towering one hundred feet over my head along Ellerbe Creek in North Durham. I had never come across a cottonwood in Durham before. I turned in all directions to see if it was alone, and quickly spotted another giant just fifty yards away. 

      It had been several years since I walked through Northgate Park along the Ellerbe Creek Greenway.  I suppose that one cannot see anything until one is finally ready to “see” and make a profound discovery.  Or perhaps the real truth of the matter is that the cottonwood tree finally “saw” me ...

       A double trunk tree of any species is very special indeed. Indigenous people who live close to the land are often drawn to celebrate anomalous formations and events that manifest in nature.  Such occurrences are considered power spots or moments - like an oddly shaped rock, an unusual cloud formation, a solar eclipse, a hidden waterfall, or perhaps a giant double trunk tree.  My wife and I exchanged wedding bands under a double trunk silk-cotton tree on an a far away tropical isle.

       Along with the elm in the Eastern United State, the cottonwood is considered a cosmic tree among Native Americans in our Western regions. Like the elm, it is often a riverbank tree and strongly dichotomous, branching into progressively symmetrical upper limps. In recent years I had trained my eyes to recognize the cottonwood while hiking the lovely Paseo del Bosque trail along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico. 

      The Hopi, Pueblo and Navaho of that region make use of cottonwood branches in creating their prayer sticks.  To these they attach feathers along with various sacred bundles for ceremonial use.  An individual’s prayer stick may even follow one to the grave.  Cottonwood was also chosen as the sacred center pole in the well know Sun Dance ceremony of the Plains Indians.

      Another example of the cottonwood’s function as a mediator between the natural and spirit worlds is its use as the tree of choice by Native Americans in the West for making drums. I was gifted a large cottonwood drum by a friend some years ago. Now, when my grandchildren are visiting my home, the cottonwood drum is lowered from its resting place on the top shelf. It then becomes the focus of attention on our living room floor as the kids are drawn to it like a mystical magnet.

      In the opposite corner of our continent I also discovered immense cottonwood trees while walking up the winding trail in the Parc du Mont Royal above the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.  There I learned that early French trappers and traders used hollowed out cottonwood trunks to fashion their wooden river boats know as pirogues. 

      So through my travels I had framed this tree as being very grand and special.  Then to my surprise, I discovered a wild and free, double trunk cottonwood tree in my hometown’s Northgate Park.  In that moment of great elation, I felt like I was the explorer Jacque Cartier, marching along Ellerbe Creek in our “Parc du Porte Nord!”

      Another example of the cottonwood’s inspiration comes from the life of the well known animation specialist Walt Disney  As a child growing up in the Midwest, he and his sister Ruth used to play under a large cottonwood tree that grew next to a spring on their family farm. 

      As he observed the interplay of animals in nature, he first daydreamed and envisioned what were to became his animated characters of Mickey Mouse, Jiminy Cricket and the whole gang.  As an adult he would later return to his childhood dreaming tree for further contemplation and inspiration.  Disney’s cottonwood still stands today and can be visited in the town of Marceline, Missouri.

      You too can discover the cottonwood.  Our two giants are located along West Lavender Avenue on the east side of Ellerbe Creek in Durham’s pleasant Parc du Porte Nord (Northgate Park!). 

      While sitting under these cottonwoods, some of you may be visited by aboriginal inspirations that will draw you deeper into the arms of Mother Nature.  Others of you, like Walt Disney, may find yourselves inspired to greater heights of artistic or even creative business ventures. Still others may simply find the gift of peace that comes from listening to the wind in the shade of this marvelous tree ...
Photo by Riverdave: Cottonwood Tree on Ellerbe Creek Greenway in Durham, NC