I admit it. I ate leaves at recess. Okay, I chewed on them and spit them out afterward, but, to a third grader, that counted as eating. My best friend and I gathered browning leaves from the grass and took large, savage bites out of them, enjoying the rough, papery texture and the bitter crunch. They could well have been poisonous, but we figured one bite wouldn’t hurt us. We were right; looking back, I realize we were eating Cottonwood leaves.
When we weren’t eating leaves at recess, we were catching them. On windy fall days we stood at the edge of the fields where a row of tall, yellowing trees shook. Their leaves fell slowly through the air, turning in small circles. We ran, laughing, with our arms stretched in waiting. As the leaves floated closer to our welcoming palms, we grasped at them giddily. It was a rare occurrence to actually catch one, but when we did, we celebrated the chosen leaf, and kept it in one of our pockets for the rest of the day. I didn’t have a name for those trees, at the time, but, looking back, I realize we were catching Cottonwood leaves.
One summer we went to the river almost every day. It was the best spot along the river, where a wide, clear stream ran into the dark rapids. The stream was lined by blackberries and a tangle of wild, spider-strewn grasses. While my brother stacked rocks to engineer dams and waterfalls, I waded through the shallow water, chasing minnows and crawdads. The first step into the water was always a shock, especially in the morning when the sun was still low. By lunch it was warm enough to plunge into the river. We floated on our backs or on inner-tubes, watching the sky move between the trees. These were good days. We ate peanut butter sandwiches, Cheetos, and fruit-snacks while we sat on the sand. We threw rocks into the water for my dog to fetch, and she plunged her whole head to the bottom to retrieve them. Sometimes I wandered upstream alone, as far as I could go without losing sight of my mom, and I built my own castles out of those slimy, mossy rocks. Often I would pick one up to find it encased in lacy leaf-skeletons. I recoiled from them; I didn’t want to touch them. They were dead. Dead, drowned leaves that had fallen from the waving trees above the water. Looking back, I realize they were Cottonwood trees.
I realize that all my life I’ve known them, and all my life I’ve loved them.