Tom Mallonee
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The Dreaming Trees


I’ve now lived in the Owens Valley for 18 years, but it’s only been in the last five or six that I’ve taken proper notice of the cottonwoods here. In a place as spectacular as the Eastern Sierra the ordinary and ubiquitous cottonwood can easily be overlooked.

The Fremont Cottonwood (populus fremontii) inhabits the valley as widely spaced individuals, in shady stands, and always along the Owens River and the many canals and streams which feed it. Despite the mountain drainages, river and  aquifers, the Owens Valley is a true desert, averaging a bit over 5 inches of precipitation per year. And although the cottonwood is a rugged tree, it requires a permanent and reliable source of water.

It seems fitting that the Fremont Cottonwood is of limited commercial value. It yields mediocre firewood, and given its propensity to crack and twist, its lumber isn’t suitable for much more than pallets and matchsticks. It almost thumbs its nose at those eyeing it for profit. As such it’s sometimes regarded as a trash tree by those who can't use it. No matter -  the clouds of cotton-seeds are a snowy spectacle of spring.

The real treasures of the cottonwoods are its shade, shelter and comforting presence. The rustle of its leaves in the hot summer air sounds like a nearby creek or a distant conversation. The sway of its branches and leaves occur in surrealistic, slowed time and create a mesmerizing spell of calm and security.

Photographer and writer Robert Adams said, “Cottonwoods can seem human-they seem to rejoice and they seem to suffer. But they also seem to know a stillness that we can’t experience, at least not for long”.

Tom Mallonee
Bishop, California

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