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Summer Snow

Under the Shedding Cottonwood Tree

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The seeds from our backyard cottonwood tree were coming down again, and my children were asking if they could go outside and play in the snow. The five-year-old who lives two buildings down had gathered up a small pile of fluffy white seeds and was collecting them into balls and throwing them straight up into the air.

The first year we lived in our house the tree began to let out its seeds on Memorial Day. They fell everywhere, filling holes in the grass and sidewalk, piling up in drifts against fences and bushes, floating in and out of windows.

"Hooray," yelled one of our new neighbors when she met us a few days later. "Maybe you'll be the family with the guts to cut that tree down. Look at the mess."

We hadn't thought about it that way. We saw it as a home for the squirrels. We spotted a possum up near the top one evening. Raccoons would hold meetings at its base after they raided the garbage cans nearby. And when the wind would blow just right, the rustle of leaves and branches brought a symphony through our open windows.

Our neighbor began raking the seeds up. We told her we hadn't planned to tear down the tree. After all, it was there before any of us. Our house is more than 100 years old, and we found a diary hidden under some wood when we moved a wall. In it the first owners wrote how big the tree was when they first built the house, first cultivated the garden, first formed the stone path we later unearthed as we began to form our own garden.

Another neighbor came by and told us about the lightning that had scarred the tree a few years back. "We thought for sure the tree was a goner then," he said. "All of these seeds. All of this extra work."

The slash slices down the trunk on one side, a huge scar. The bark is gone, and the wood is gray from exposure. Yet the tree survived. It must have a diameter of six feet now. We've never measured it, though we promised we would.

We've been slowly fixing our house for more than six years now. Sure enough, the seeds began to fall during the Memorial Day weekend this year, the annual acknowledgment of the coming of summer. They fell heavily for a few days, moving rapidly in the wind, then fell slowly for weeks. They didn't seem to float straight down, so our yard stayed fairly clear. But everywhere else they tumbled down and danced to the ground, floating from car to car, scooting across sidewalks and streets until a piece of grass or a weed snatched one and pushed it against steps or a fence.

Last year the skies were gray, and the cotton massed against stone walls we'd recently built. Early in the morning when we walked the dogs the white fluff was everywhere like snow. It reminded me of early spring in the mountains of Montana, snow drifting to the cliffs, holding on in the shade, holding on to winter. Our camera was broken, and we didn't get any pictures. I'd hoped for another try this year, but it didn't happen. Every day the sun greeted us through a blue sky, and the cotton seeds drifted against the wall like the end of a snow shower the sun quickly melts to nothing.

Our dog chased a seed around the living room, and our children gathered fallen branches to shake more seeds loose.

No one complains to us about the tree anymore. Outside our front lawn was white, and when I cut the grass the seeds jumped into my hair and nose and forced me to cough and sneeze. Another year. We will not cut it down. The seeds danced into the open window and floated onto the carpet, onto my children's hair, onto our bed. The tree will outlive us, outlive our house.

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