Life in the Cottonwoods

by Lynne McCafferty -
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Growing up it was easy to take for granted the sun drenched red earth of Oklahoma and the towering cottonwoods that sprung out of the ground like massive, leafy skyscrapers. For me, this was my city, my terrain and my fortress. I spent many a day with my bare feet in the red dirt, knees and elbows scuffed from scaling those red rock banks and rough bark of the cottonwoods as I carefully climbed to the spot where I could overlook the landscape; Taking it all in and working through life’s biggest issues. Which, for a young girl (the only girl) usually pertained to school fiascos and spying on my brothers. After all, you just never knew when you’d need that one itty bitty detail to hold over their heads just so you got to ride in the front seat of the truck and not sit in the back all the way to town.

Being the only girl of a family that had 6 boys there wasn’t a dad around gonna let their little girl come over to play and probably for good reason. This, along with the boys not wanting “the cootie girl” tagging along, gave me leisure time to do all the spying one could ever hope for. I used my time wisely and I must say, I got quite good at all the tactics required to extort favors when necessary. I also got quite proficient in stirring up a little drama if the hot summer days got too long and boring.

One hot summer, I noticed that my brothers, Roger and Chuck, were in a hurry A LOT to get their chores done and then they would disappear, only to come back just in time to move the irrigation pipe. But, they were dirty, winded and shared looks that said “we have a secret”.

Something about those shared looks made me awful curious and I began waiting to hang the clothes on the line and positioning myself where I had a perfect view all around to see just where they were headed.

Ah ha! they were headed towards the creek that was about a half mile from our home. So, after a few days of surveillance and coming to the conclusion that this must be the destination and not a trick on their part to fool me, I began taking little walks pretending to pick wildflowers in the fields or to just enjoy the fields of love grass that swayed softly with the Oklahoma breeze. This gave me a perfect vantage point to see which way they headed once hitting the bank of the creek.

Now, walking towards the creek posed a problem. Once they got there and headed upstream, I had no clue where they went and couldn’t take the chance of rustling the bramble or rippling the water and being found out. But, I also couldn’t give up, this presented such a great opportunity for me and I wasn’t about to let it slip through my fingers!

So, I began searching the landscape trying to figure out just how I could accomplish my spying expedition. And lo and behold— those cottonwoods beamed down on me like an old trusted friend and provided me with protection and away from their cautious eyes.

The following day, I finished my chores in record speed I’m sure mama wondered what had gotten into me, because I whipped those clothes off the clothesline lightening fast , folded, put away and had the next load on the line to dry before the boys finished even half of their chores. Then I took off bare feet and all. I only had a few minutes to climb the cottonwood that would give me a Birds Eye view of where those two boys were headed. I hit that cotton field full bore with my bare feet and didn’t dare look back until I reached the perfect tree low limbs for climbing and thick, heavy abundant leaves perfect for hiding.

Reaching the tree, I don’t think I even stopped, but ran right up the trunk and grappled the nearest branch, swinging myself up to get a look behind me. Good! Nobody was in sight. So, I slowed down and started looking for the next branch that would help me get to the top for a better view. My heart pounding with each snap of a twig or rustling of the branches as it seemed like it echoed and I was certain to be found out but, today was my lucky day.

I finally reached the pinnacle of that old gnarly cottonwood and made myself a little nest. Heck, it was so well hidden I could straddle in the crook of the tree and dangle my feet if I wanted to. I sat there waiting and feeling mighty proud with a smug smile of satisfaction plastered on my grubby face

Lazing on a big ole branch, I waited for Roger and Chuck to show up and I made good use of my time and began looking for anything I thought could be their destination. Other than a few small whirlpools in the creek and grapevines creeping across the creek that they could use to swing across, I didn’t see anything. I wondered what they could be doing that could be so secretive and require them to do every single day rain or shine. To me, it looked boring. The thought did cross my mind that they might be drying out some of the grapevine for a redneck cigarette, but ditched that idea because they wouldn’t need to go this far upstream to do that.

In the middle of my thinking spell, I suddenly heard a voice and quickly ducked down and peered between the leaves and branches. Sure enough, here they came, nonchalantly walking down the field believing they were out of sight. I can’t even explain the sheer joy I had as they walked right under that big old cottonwood and sauntered past, talking about a trip they were gonna take on the creek. Well, needless to say that piqued my interest and mighty quick. What trip? Where were they going? Running away? What?

I sat perfectly still, listening carefully to their fading voices and trying to make out the words as they headed further up the creek and out of earshot. Dang! How far are they going anyway? My perfect spot wasn’t so perfect after all! I could see them a little, but I couldn’t hear a stinking word they were saying. Not to mention I didn’t have time to find another tree! Grudgingly, I climbed down out of that tree and skedaddled back to the house, staying just over the hill making sure they couldn’t see me. I had laundry to do, stupid laundry.

This went on for several days, as I’d watch as they moseyed up the creek further and further each day making me find a new hiding spot every single time! But, I knew if they were this determined I was gonna find out just what they were doing. No pain, no gain, right? Thank God for those bark ridden cottonwoods they provided shelter every single time I needed it and always with the best view.

Mama did ask me once why I was so scuffed up, as she picked twigs and leaves from my gnarled hair and although she knew I was up to something, she just laughed when I told her I was climbing trees. I think she must’ve spent her own fair share of time climbing the cottonwoods

Each day, I ran like the wind, Forrest Gump style, to a new tree, closer to what I was sure was the mother lode treasure my brothers had found. Each day I just knew we had to be close. Each day they unknowingly walked right under me. Then it happened. I found it!! Newly chopped down, half in the water and half on the muddy bank, was a humungous cottonwood, looking like a bridge just barely missing the other bank of the creek. Huh? They chopped down a tree to make a bridge to cross a creek? That’s stupid. It’s not even deep enough to need a bridge. Well, anyway, they’d be there shortly, so I found another hidin’ spot in the cottonwood tree right beside the one they had chopped down.

Climbing that tree and finding the most perfect spot, a big old crevice between two branches, covered in leaves. I sat and listened to their plans. Each one talking in turn about the canoe they were gonna make, how far they could travel, what job each would take in making oars and such.

Day after day I listened, hidden in that tree, to two young boys making plans and all kinds of “boy” stuff as they took turns swinging an axe and trying to carve out a canoe with an old rusty knife. With each swing of the axe and each scrape of the knife they were fulfilling the dream of two boys about adventure and intrigue.

Much to my dismay, they never did talk about anything during those long, lazy days that I could use for “bargaining”. I was however, able to get a little enjoyment by dropping hints to one of them once in a while that maybe I knew something about their plans. Then they would question the other one “did you tell her?”, “how’d she know?”

Life in the cottonwoods was everything you’d think it would be, intrigue, adventure and a place to solve life’s issues. If I could, I’d be back there dangling my feet high above the red dirt, knees and elbows scuffed, long hair full of leaves and twigs, listening to two young boys contemplating life’s problems and allowing the wild and free spirit of a little sun soaked girl to reach the top of the world.