Several years ago I lost an old, old friend, when crews from the village of Oswego removed a giant cottonwood tree just down North Adams Street from my home.
The tree was dying. After every storm, it dropped a few more branches. A strong windstorm a few weeks before it was taken down brought a giant limb larger than many trees in the village crashing down on the street. So it was probably time the venerable old tree was removed. But I still miss it.
When I moved to North Adams Street as a third grader, the tree, located just next door, was one of the largest along a street crowded with giant overarching elms and cottonwoods.
In the summertime, we’d sit under it, and even during the hottest days, the rustle of cottonwood leaves–they pick up every hint of a breeze–made a sound that seemed to promise cooler weather. We never climbed the towering tree or tried to build a tree house in it. It was far to large, and the branches closest to the ground were still far higher than those on most of the other mature trees in the neighborhood.
After my wife and I were married, we bought the house—my great-great grandparents had lived there until their deaths in the early 1900s—and the giant cottonwood that dominated the front yard became a part of our lives. We watched each spring as leaves formed, and groused a bit as the inevitable cotton-like seeds coated the 1 neighborhood.
Even then, well over 40 years ago, the tree was starting to die. The dead branches, though, first became homes and feeding stations for woodpeckers and other birds. After limbs were culled by one of our vigorous Illinois windstorms, birds colonized the rotted heartwood voids in jagged stumps left on the tree’s towering trunk. And the rustle of those leaves still sounded a cooling note on the hot summer days of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In 1976, we sold my great-great grandparents’ house and moved next door to my parents’ house (and my childhood home) in 1976. The tree was no longer ours, but we still kept an eye on it. It still shaded the street on sultry August days, and stood out in stark light gray contrast against a cold startlingly blue January sky, offering me, at least, a tie with my childhood and with all the folks who had known the tree.
The giant cottonwood probably grew of its own accord, seeded by any one of the dozens of towering cottonwoods that once lined the banks of the Fox River. Cottonwoods like moisture, and in our narrow river bottomland along North Adams, the trees found conditions to their liking.
From the size of the tree, it may well have been an immature tree when the Battle of San Juan Hill was fought, possibly even providing some shade along the dirt track that was then called Water Street when my great-great-grandparents moved to the house in which my wife and I would one day live.
The tree had matured by the time my great-grandparents moved to town in 1908, building the home I now live in, to live next to my great-grandmother’s parents, whose front yard the cottonwood dominated. The tree was there to see wars and famine and depression and recovery as the decades passed, growing, maturing, and becoming old, providing shade and living space for a variety of wildlife from fox squirrels to red- headed woodpeckers.
During the years it stood close by the road, the springs that dampen the soil there providing plenty of nourishment, its relatives growing on the banks of the Fox River themselves became old and, ravaged by flood, ice, and age, and one by one, died.
When the settlers arrived, cottonwoods with their penchant for keeping their feet damp marked watercourses and provided both shade and a welcoming environment for hundreds of creatures. They were easy to spot with their distinctive medium gray deeply-fissured bark and towering trunks that can reach 100 feet in height. Like their relatives the poplars and aspens, cottonwoods have rounded triangular-shaped leaves that are dark green on top and a light silvery gray-green below.
The Midwest’s Native People favored cottonwoods for manufacturing dugout canoes because the wood is easily worked. They were not heavily logged as were most of the area’s other timber because cottonwood simply doesn’t make very good lumber. Dried, it becomes lightweight, almost like balsa wood, and so isn’t particularly good for ﬁrewood, either.
The passing of our cottonwoods is, I think, a melancholy event. Forest preserves, municipalities, and parks are much more likely to plant one of the more glamorous hardwoods, such as maples or oaks, when they decide to reforest an area. It’s too bad someone is not planting a few cottonwoods, especially in low-lying areas and along streams. They grow fast, tolerate wet conditions, and provide valuable streamside stabilization. And since only the female trees produce the billowing clouds of cottonwood seeds each spring, cloned male trees that are available for planting don’t create that particular problem.
So if no one else is willing to champion planting a few cottonwoods to replace our dying the giants, I will. Consider this a plea to allow our children to enjoy the sound of cottonwood leaves giving a cooling rustle as a breeze stirs on a sultry July afternoon. Give another generation a chance to see towering, gaunt, gray branches silhouetted against a brilliant winter sky. Offer all of us a chance to see the leading gusts of a fast-moving summer thunder storm change the dark green leaves to silvery green as the first gusts hit and big drops of rain begin to fall.
Our old friend on North Adams Street is long gone. The summers have been a little hotter on our street because of the loss of the old giant’s shade, and we have a little less diversity in bird life as woodpeckers and other insect-eaters hunt elsewhere for their dinners. But perhaps as reforestation takes place throughout Kendall County, our forest preserve, park district, and municipal ofﬁcials will decide that diversity demands a cottonwood or two be included so that future generations can lie on their blankets on a summer day looking up and marveling at what nature—with the help of a few tree planters—has wrought.