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A small grassy meadow presided over by ancient cottonwood trees, in a remote desert canyon.
Autumn colors are visible in the trees and in the skunk bushes.
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Old cottonwood trees show their age not only in impressive size, but also in the depth and complexity of the grooves in their bark. These twins (they likely are genetically identical and sharing one root system) preside over a beautiful grassy patch in a remote canyon. This image was made on the tenth autumn I have camped by these trees. And what a decade it was.
Visiting an Old Friend
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I had known this cottonwood for well over a decade. When we first “met”, it was about half its size in this photograph. At the time of this writing, it still thrives in its unusual setting, in a deep pothole in the sandstone.
This sandstone was a dune in the largest sand desert to ever exist on Earth, in the Jurassic period. The cross-bedded lines in the sandstone register the pattern of winds that blew the sand onto this dune about two hundred million years ago. By comparison, human beings existed on Earth for only 200,000-300,000 years.
Early to Rise
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Green rabbitbrush under a dormant cottonwood not yet awake for spring.
Liberated by Light
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Sliver of winter sunlight catches the branches of a cottonwood tree usually hiding in the shade of a steep canyon wall.
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Glowing grasses and rabbitbrush bushes in front of cottonwood lit by reflected red glow from a canyon wall.
I have camped by this tree countless times over the years. I came to think of it as guardian and a friend.
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Cottonwoods had a very good year in 2018, in stark contrast to other deciduous trees, where the effects of climate change have been more readily visible (at times devastatingly so).
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Solitary cottonwood tree in autumn coat in an other-worldly landscape of desert badlands.
Better than Gold
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Not all that glitters is gold, thankfully. Cottonwood in autumn display against a backdrop of blue clay slopes.
Desert Autumn Celebration
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A small grove of cottonwood and oak trees in a deep canyon, in autumn display.
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Cottonwood trees in a meadow filled with willows, growing along a desert river.
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Desert brush and cottonwood tree in autumn display, set against a striped and varnished sandstone cliff.
Time to Wake
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Bare cottonwood tree against the backdrop of a green mountain slope, in early spring.
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Young cottonwood sapling in autumn color, growing among reeds. Most young cottonwoods in the deep canyons end up swept away by flash floods (although they may take root in a new spot, if they happen to land in a fortuitous place). This one looks to be a couple of years old, so likely has found a good place to set root, and may some day become a giant.
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A large cottonwood spreads its limbs over a growth of willows and rabbitbrush.
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Cottonwood tree in autumn foliage growing by the side of a small desert creek. I like the gesture implied in the curve; it reminded me of a graceful dancer.
Change of Pace
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Row of trees in autumn color curving along a desert creek in a steep canyon.
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A solitary walk along a tree-lined canyon path on a quiet winter afternoon.
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Backlit cottonwood leaves, hanging from elegant thin branches.
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New spring foliage on cottonwood tree glows when lit from behind as the late sun is low in the sky, illuminating just the top of the tree, but not the deep wash it grows in. The red leaves are dry remnants still clinging to the tree after last year’s autumn season.
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Flaring sun rays piercing through cottonwood tree on an autumn afternoon.
The Loneliest Season
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Winter is when we retreat into our thoughts and heated shelters. Those rooted to the landscape persevere in their own way, and like all things left to their own devices for long enough, their stasis is perfected and elegant.
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Dormant cottonwood trees engulfed in wintry fog, looking like they are swaying to music only they can hear.
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Old cottonwood tree in a canyon, frosted in new snow.
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Cottonwood tree growing in a deep pothole in a large sandstone dome. A monsoon thunderstorm approaches.
This image was made years ago, when this tree was still alive (it is no longer), and few people knew of its location. Today, this area has been “developed,” with a graveled parking area, restroom, and “no-camping” signs. At the time, I used to enjoy camping nearby, sometimes for a week or more without seeing any other people. I liked scrambling to the top of this sandstone dome in the afternoon to watch the warm light fading over the desert as evening fell.
I’m a firm believer that turning such places into tourist attractions is as damaging and exploitative as any other industrial use. The place still looks somewhat the same, but it feels nothing like it did when it was wild, remote, and little-visited. That place I knew, no longer exists. Over the years I returned to visit this tree many times. I stopped visiting when it finally died a few years ago, although I drive by the area every now and then, always remembering fondly what it used to be like.
Badlands Cottonwoods in Autumn
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Cottonwood trees in autumn coats growing along a desert river at the base of colorful mineral-rich bentonite clay.
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Cottonwood tree begins to turn into its autumn colors, growing against a the curved wall of a deep canyon.
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Like decorative ornaments, the golden leaves of a cottonwood tree in autumn color, brighten the canyon.
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A thick growth of cottonwood trees, willows, and desert brush.
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Small buds on cottonwood trees signals the arrival of spring.
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New spring foliage on a tall cottonwood tree. A strong wind was blowing, which is evident on close examination of the canopy.
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Winter sun above a cottonwood tree engulfed in fog.
The Glowing Season
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Cottonwood tree in peak autumn color, in the warm glow of light reflecting off steep red canyon walls.
The Desert Dreams
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Dormant trees and desert brush offer subtle hues in every color of the rainbow.
Home for the Holidays
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A row of cottonwood trees, bare for the winter season, against a backdrop of sandstone cliffs. I made this photograph from one of the local roads in my home town.
Twisted and Bent
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Cottonwood trees still bare just before the eruption of spring. The last of the winter's snow still visible in the background.
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Fallen cottonwood rests on a thin and textured sheet of ice in the shaded edge of a desert creek. Red cliffs lit by the morning sun reflect a golden glow, and the ice will be gone in the coming hours as sunlight reaches this small patch.
A Moment to Rest
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Fallen cottonwood leaves resting on wet silt at the bottom of a canyon after a recent flood. The next flood will wash them away for good.
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Fallen autumn cottonwood leaves resting on fresh mud sculpted by a flash flood the previous day. Within a couple of days, this mud will dry and crack.
This portfolio is one of a series dedicated to trees that have become personally meaningful to me, by which I mean that they are prominent and welcome parts of my world and life. It is not an exaggeration to say that, being the recluse that I am, I spend considerably more time in the company of these trees than in the company of people (including those I consider as friends).
Cottonwood trees are among the most ubiquitous and iconic trees native to the desert of my home, the Colorado Plateau. Their presence anywhere in the landscape indicates the proximity of water, and their thick and twisted trunks often speak of the struggle to survive in the face of adversity.
Indeed, these trees persist through periods of years-long drought, massive floods, extremes of heat and cold—all of which shape and temper them so that no two are alike.
Twice each year, these solemn giants go through profound transformations: donning the lime-green buds of spring foliage after a naked winter slumber; and changing into a dazzling golden coat in autumn, before the leaves fall again.
An artist prone to the indiscretion of anthropomorphism, may see in these trees the visages of ancient mystics, tormented and scarred by time, yet oblivious to it. Cottonwoods are recurring characters in my desert stories, and their presence is almost constant in the places I love more than any other.
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