What is it about a cottonwood in spring covered in dry leaves that didn’t fall in autumn when it froze? Why, when the wind blows through, do I stop and listen, and why is that rattle so specific, so unlike any other dry leaf on any other tree? It’s loud, but gentle. Instrumental. Percussive. Hollow.
I walked the Milwaukee River Trail today, and I went a little further than I planned. At two and a half miles, I turned around, and the wind kicked up, and I noticed a tree rattling just a few feet away. I could almost smell it, the sticky-sweet sap that sticks cottonwood pods to my shoes, that used to glue my dog’s toes together when my dog was still alive. I miss her. I’ve had other dogs, but not since, and I’m not sure I can ever risk loving something so much ever again.
Spring was better when that dog was around. Once, we were walking through a little wooded area in a densely-developed neighborhood. I was looking down, guiding us through the brush, and when I looked up to see where I was going, I saw a bear not ten feet from me, wary, paw on the trunk of a cottonwood. I said, hi. I said, sorry. And I backed us up and out, and the bear just waited for us to go because most bears who live in neighborhood wooded areas do that. They wait for people to leave them alone.
Today on my walk, I stood under that rattling cottonwood, and I thought of spring and springs past, and my life felt long but also very short, and at the end of it all, however long that is, I’ll probably think about that tree and the bear and my dog, among other things, and I’ll know all at once and not too late, that life has been good.