The Big Sioux River is as docile as some kid's old beagle these days. This summer it was a pit bull, coming up off its leash for weeks, slashing its way through its farmland banks and pooling out a mile wide in some places. It was a headache to some; others, I'm sure lost some valuable acres in a season when row crops--corn and beans--have become vegetative gold.
On Saturday I took a walk on its banks south and west of Hawarden, banks that were obviously steep and tall enough to keep its rampage in check. Sort of. In some places the river's woodland borders look like twilight zones, having been inundated for weeks and weeks. But where I walked and stood, there was none of that, the river silent and sleepy beneath me, almost a reflecting pool. Who could have guessed it spent most of the summer being so dang unruly.
Cottonwoods are almost iconic out here on the edge of the plains. They're huge, but they grow like weeds, their soft wood almost useless to the first white settlers. The buffalo loved 'em, loved to rub up against their tractor-tire-like bark. In some hollows not likely all that far west of here, the fur stacked up around a stand of old cottonwoods might run a foot deep 150 years ago, I once read.
They're monsters, but toothless, and their branches snap off easily in the roughhouse prairie winds. A couple of cottonwoods can look like a stand of broken pretzels, beautiful in their own way, but really, really beat up, mangled.
They're everywhere along the Big Sioux, and I'm sure this summer's flood planted another gross because cottonwood seeds sprout only in standing water--they're here only because of floods. Tame the Big Sioux River, dam it up some place south of Sioux Falls, and that would be it for the cottonwoods. They would be no more.
That's sort of interesting--they grow only when the river goes on a rampage.
On Saturday, I stood beside huge, huge cottonwoods growing uncomfortably close to the river. One of them, really massive, bore scars where some demented beaver had determined to fell it. Clearly, he never did. One wonders at what point that animal simply threw in the towel and went after easier pray. Beavers, some say, are nature's engineers; but I know a man who's worked around their madness for years, and he claims they're idiots.
The one that picked on this cottonwood--he's an idiot.
But the river takes out cottonwoods, even the old guys, when it comes up high and eats away at the banks. The Big Sioux River is full of trees and root balls, many of them monsters too. It's almost impossible to look up or downstream and not see skulking hunks of old limbs or the trees themselves protruding from the water like statues of dead seals.
And all along those banks, roots dangle where some of those trees most vulnerable won't last another flood season or two. I must have a hundred pictures of old, broken down cottonwoods because they're just flat out a feature here, their limbs a mess. I think--I may be silly--a photograph of one of them, broken limbs and all, against a dawn is still priceless, even though I've got a hard drive full of 'em. They're decidedly photogenic, symbols, I guess, of something--perseverance maybe, the dogged will to survive.
But when the flood waters strip away their earthy garb, it's almost embarrassing to walk past them, their gangling roots exposed for all the world to see. I remember, years ago, walking into a YMCA pool and seeing a dozen fat old men naked as jaybirds and being, well, repulsed. To see those giant cottonwoods denuded, defrocked, their privates horribly exposed, isn't pretty.
The river plants 'em, I guess--without floods, they wouldn't be there. And the river takes 'em eventually too, hauls them down, and swallows them whole.
The river makes 'em and takes 'em.
For awhile, I guess, we get 'em, and they are, I think, a thing of beauty.
This morning's thanks are for those marvelous cottonwoods--and the river that owns 'em.