Sighted: Cottonwood Trees

by Dawn Johnson

Black cottonwood trees (Populus balsamifera ssp.) release their seeds during times when the rivers and waterways are at their highest. This is to ensure that the water surrounding them will carry their seeds into the far reaches of the riparian areas that sustain so much life. The banks are so ripe for the planting of new things.

This is what my teacher told me a few years back when I first embarked on my “adult education.” It was at that moment of wonder that I fell head over heels in love with ecology: the unexpected connectedness of nature and the interactions between species and their environment.

The common things that we look at and dismiss as being lone and solitary now had new depth. Species live amongst entire communities in which they connect with on some level or another. Just like us. Of course this is nothing new. Local First Nations (as well as many western scientists) have held and understood this knowledge for many many years. But it was my first profound insight into the inner-workings of nature.

The cottonwood tree plays an important role in floodplains like the Pemberton Valley. It’s root system provides defense against erosion. It provide habitat for a host of plant and animal species. Their abundant leaves provide a steady stream of organic nutrients that are often lacking in flood prone areas due to the constant flush of the land. They change and build the very soil that supports them. They regulate things as big as temperature, evaporation, and transpiration cycles.

This concept of sublime interconnectedness transfers directly to my life. It makes me think about all the wonderful, unique, diverse people connecting in our community: those who provide nourishment and space for new things to spout. Who provide shelter and stability. Who have the ability to create the platforms from which we embark. To steer, ride, and unite the Winds of Change.

A few weeks ago when sitting outside on the porch my daughter exclaimed: “It is snowing. How can it be summer and be snowing?” We watched the cottonwood seeds dance through the fading sun. We took a walk to the river to confirm and marvel at the height of the Lillooet River: a slurry of cloudy water in constant motion. On a journey affected by, and affecting so many things.

Dawn Johnson is a director of the Stewardship Pemberton Society. One of her goals in life is to deepen her understanding of nature and to pass that knowledge on to others. 

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