I’ve never seen a giant cottonwood fall, only seen the aftermath, but it must have been a crash that shook the earth, awoke all the birds in the middle of the night, sent the owl flying off to find another roost. When I’ve come across them, the trunks are wrenched from the roots, the branches still dangling in the air, the massive tree, helpless, like an old warrior, lying defeated in the fields.
There is something ignominious and sad about the trees’ fall from grace, like seeing a beached whale, out of its element, and doomed. But, like the whale, it’s an opportunity to view up close something that has remained aloof, too far and inaccessible to embrace. It’s only when they’re down, on the same level with us mere mortals, that we realize their massiveness and complex architecture.
Spread out on the ground, where they’ve succumbed finally to gravity, you can see how their branches aligned themselves, spreading out from the main trunk of the tree. With the strong winds we get around Estes Park and Allenspark, there’s no shortage of downed pine trees, their roots brought to light from underground, easily yanked from this rocky ground that gives way easily. The exposed roots are massive—sometimes four feet across— and tough, still grasping rocks that failed to hold the tree up against the winds.
Last spring, after a week of heavy winds, one of my favorite trees near the cabin, a huge, gnarled ponderosa that was twisted in so many ways it was like a signpost pointing in 10 directions, as if to confuse the traveler, came down, and I felt wrenched in as many ways seeing it lying there.
It’s not just winds but water. After our September floods, whole groves of ponderosas were ripped from their roots and carried downstream. It breaks my heart every time I drive by and see these massive trees lying sideways on the ground or caught cross-wise in the branches of other trees.
Even the aspens, which shelter together for protection and are so much lower to the ground than the pines, are not immune from the forces of wind or gravity, often pulled down hillsides by land- or snowslides. I’ve seen a whole hillside of aspen trunks, their barks peeling, lying like bones in parallel formation.
After years of wind, snow, rain and sun, the old ones are reduced to their bare essentials. Stripped bare of leaves, needles and bark, the cottonwoods are bleached white, the pine trees mellow into rich hues of red and brown, and the aspens a mottled white and tan. Their trunks are etched with the paths of long-gone insects, their footprints incised in the bark, like some illegible hieroglypics.
With their broad trunks, the cottonwoods and pines invite me to sit down, on their smooth surface, or curl up against the trunk and offer myself up to the sun, enjoy solace and protection in their solidity and warmth. It’s not just me. Rabbits, mice, coyote and foxes find shelter and build nests in the carcasses of these trees.
Sometimes, even after the trunk has been brought down, is laying seemingly dead, there may be enough roots to keep one branch or limb going, life still surging through this complex and amazing being.