Cottonwood Leaves

In the spring, Pema and I watched the large cottonwood tree outside our home shed tiny green buds all over the ground. Rather, we felt it. The branches, knocking and clicking above us whenever the wind blew, towered over the sandbox, and strong gusts brought showers of the little green buds onto our heads and shoulders and backs. We crouched over our creations, holding the little buds in our hands, dragging them in spirals through the sand, and burying them in piles.


Pema calls them pepitas, pumpkin seeds, because they resemble the familiar teardrop-shaped seeds that grow inside pumpkins and other winter squash. They also come in fifty pound bags from the wholesaler, a cheap alternative to nuts. The ground was littered with them. A bit more slender than pepitas, they have the same teardrop shape - one end is rounded, while the other is pointy. A little tip of orange sap usually adheres to the pointy end, hardly larger than a grain of sand. We collected them and added to our various piles of colors and objects and whatever might be useful. Sometimes they were goats, eating grass and drinking water at our corrals. Crushing them open revealed a sweet, earthy fragrance, reminiscent of chamomile, that would linger on our fingertips for hours.


Now it is autumn, and when Pema, Francis and I walked out to the sandbox yesterday, we found it covered in a carpet of leaves of astonishing color and variety. This was new. Only a day or two ago there was but a mere sprinkling of leaves, most of them supple enough I could still bend them in my hand without that telltale snap. Now, as we approached our destination, our feet kicked up that invigorating autumnal sound and we realized at once that we had stumbled into a treasure.


Cottonwood leaves are heart-shaped, with crenulated edges that curve in patterns reminiscent of the course of rivers, or the movement of snakes. Turning gold in the fall, the trees, a cousin of aspens, are radiant and noisy, showering leaves like gold dust whenever a good breeze picks up. One of the largest trees in New Mexico, their trunks can easily grow five feet thick, sprout several huge branches, and an enormous umbrella of foliage. Ours was rather more modest, but plenty large enough for three on a Saturday evening.


The three of us had walked over to the sandbox with nothing more in mind than the typical filling of containers, the dragging of sticks, and with the thought, perhaps, of recovering Francis’s wheelbarrow. Parked on the overlook down to the horse fields, it too was covered in leaves, as were all of our cups and buckets - everything mysteriously covered and clean, as in the first snow of winter. Perked up by the sights and sounds, we immediately grew excited. The snap-crunch of the leaves was like static electricity, quickening our pulse. Our bodies began to dance in grand, sweeping motions. What had begun as a half-hearted tour became, instantly, a passionate encounter with place.


I picked up a large pile of leaves and threw them into the air, the golden leaves raining down over us. “Again,” squealed Francis, with that exuberant smile of his. “Yeah, yeah, again!” agreed Pema, twirling. As I threw more piles over us, I seeped into the landscape. I had been a little bored and frustrated when we walked out the door, but now we were effortlessly present. After all, the mountains, the five o’clock sun, the blue sky overhead. I was immediately entranced. “Let’s get a rake,” I said.


I ran to the shed. Two large rakes, but nothing a child could use. Oh well. I grabbed both, one with a wooden handle, warm, and one with metal, cold, both opening out into a big plastic fan. I closed the door and ran back as quickly as I could. “Okay, okay,” I said, dropping the rake with the metal handle. “Give me some room so I can rake these all up…and we’ll…you know…Francis, can you move the wheelbarrow?...Yeah…Pema…what’s that?...Hey, if you find big sticks, just pull them out. So we don’t fall in them.” I couldn’t stop talking. I was too excited. I was kind of singing the words to myself, and out loud, dancing through the crunchy music of the rake in the leaves. Crackle, crunch, roll, dance, step, shuffle, groove.


We had a big pile within minutes. The leaves, gold and green and brown, were like crunchy manna from heaven. It was approaching sunset. “Oh my goodness, oh my goodness,” I kept singing, “this is so right and good!” I could smell the crackling leaves, their sweet and almost fruity aromas, with just a touch of the decay and ferment of fall. “Do you smell that?” I asked, more to myself than either to Francis or Pema, “Smells like pepitas…or…or…fresh baked bread!”


Smells have a way of enfolding and unraveling memory. I was back in spring with Pema, hands in the earth, pepitas driven like goats to the food bins, crushed in cold hands and erupting with plumes of fragrance. But I was also back home in Ohio, on Altamont Street, with Pete. We were in the backyard with Dad’s old metal rake, the tines screeching as we dragged it under the huge mulberry tree that was the deciding presence of our backyard. Pieces and stems of damp leaves had worked under our collars, into our hair, and behind our ears, and now we were regathering the leaves for another run at it. And there I was, under the embrace of that tree, of childhood, of Pete. Damn, Pete. Where’d you go? Where’d I go? New Mexico is so lovely. Here, Pema, Francis and I have acres of backyard and wilderness to explore right out our front door. It extends for miles, Pete, hundreds of miles in every direction. I opened my arms as if to show him. But Pete…ah well. I turned back to my rake.


Pema and Francis were in the pile now, leaves skirting up past their waists. Francis was giggling. Pema was singing. I threw up a huge swath of leaves with my rake and let them dazzle and fall and bury them. They laughed and kicked their legs. Pema ran out, still singing, twirling, and jumped, full-bodied, into the discarded chattel of this old tree. One tree. I buried Francis up to his head, giggling and joyful. “Again, again,” he repeated.


We were present with each other, but we were also present in ourselves. Pema would get out of the pile, dance around for a minute, and jump back in. Francis would shuffle around and laugh, then laugh even more when Pema landed back in the pile. I smiled and stretched my container for joy a little further, adding another layer of memory to timelessness.


I suppose I can’t exactly speak for Pema and Francis, who, after all, were laying down only one of the first layers of memory, tamping it effortlessly in place with the smells and sounds, the wash of excitement. The sun had not yet hit the rose-colored hues of evening. It painted the landscape for them in the clear yellow translucence of full day. My heart went out, into the future - Pema, decades from now, shuffling under the boughs of a cottonwood, through a river of yellow, brown, and green leaves, shaking up that familiar sound. She reaches over, picks up a handful of the dry, crackling leaves and holds them to her face. The smell of pepitas. Goats in the shed. Or maybe Francis, on a hillside somewhere with a lover, silently admiring the way the leaves shucked off a large patch of wildflowers in streams of reds and purples and browns. The way they fill the contours and crevasses of the earth, revealing the topography and landscape of memory.