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Cottonwoods, aspen grace landscape on midsummer’s eve

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By Sylvia Brockner

Today, June 20, is the summer solstice, the day that people of many races and cultures around the world celebrate as midsummer night’s eve, the longest day of the year and thereby the shortest night of the year.

Most people consider this the first day of summer, but to my late husband Bill and I, it was the first day of fall because from this day forward, each day becomes a bit shorter until by September the fall equinox arrives when the day and night become equal, and we continue on this pattern until the winter solstice in December marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. Then we reverse the pattern with each day beginning to grow longer again.
This was the day we celebrated for it meant we were on the long path to spring and summer, the time Bill loved the best. This is also the reason that most cultures celebrated mid-winter festivals of some kind. And no wonder. If you lived in the kind of shelters they did, you would have welcomed the return of the sun, too.
I recall one year when Bill and I were in the arctic on mid-summer night, and he took a photograph of our shadows stretching out yards in front of us at midnight. The native children were playing baseball in the street at 3 a.m. and like the animals, we looked for a sunny bank where we could get out of the wind and into the sun. I also recall the first year we lived here. I thought I would sleep out overnight on mid-summer night to see what kind of animals were around. It was a beautiful night; a full moon made it as light as day, but eventually I fell asleep. I was awakened to find a raccoon sitting on my chest, patting my face with its little hands, trying to “see” what this strange creature was.
I was so surprised that I sat bolt upright and unceremoniously dumped my visitor onto the ground. He scuttled off with much grumbling at being so mistreated, and I decided to move inside. I later learned that the former owners of the house had fed raccoons, and I don’t think they ever forget a place they have been fed. For 47 years and at least as many generations later, they are still coming around in search of food.
While the peak of spring bird migration is in May here, a few still carry over into June. By mid-summer’s eve, however, the spring migration has ended, and it is time to start looking for early fall migrants to return.
Another sign of summer is the cottonwood down floating in the air. All this past week, the down from the narrowleaf cottonwoods has been drifting lazily by and gathering in windrows along the road edge. In Denver one day last week, I noticed the down make little shadows on the sidewalk and collect along the curb.
The cotton down of the cottonwoods is the pappus found on all cottonwood seeds. The down bears the seeds aloft on even the mildest breezes, carrying them to a new location. We all know the dandelion, which has little parachutes to carry their seeds aloft, but there are many other plants that have some form of fluff to aid in the dispersion of their seed.
The plains cottonwood is probably the best-known tree of the West. They usually are found along streams or at least in river valleys where there is more water. This is also true of aspen. It was well known to the early settlers who knew a good well site was where the aspen grew.
Unfortunately, the tangle of aspen roots made digging very difficult, but it did usually produce a good well. The narrowleaf cottonwood is more common in this area for it is naturally found from about 4,000 to 8,000 feet. It is not as graceful a tree, but it is often planted in mountain towns as it does survive our winters.
The cottonwoods, aspen and willows that comprise the populus family are the main deciduous trees in the foothills. They make a most welcome change from the monotony of the endless pine forest. They are short-lived trees, but they keep replacing themselves by seed. They provide nesting sites for many small mammals, and I think we would all miss them if they weren’t around. They add great variety to our golden autumn color and silver filagree against the blue winter sky. Their new, fresh, light-green leaves are a welcome sign of spring.