The Story of Fluff, A Cottonwood Seed
events inspired Ken to write this story.
First, we visited Cochiti Pueblo with our first grandson and watched as
Redbird painted and then stretched hides over a drum he made just for us (above). Ken later shared this story with Redbird,
who recognized himself in "Red Feather," who crafted the mystical
as an interpreter at Rio Grande Nature Center State Park, Ken learned about
Albuquerque's last great flood of 1942, which scoured the Rio Grande flood
plain. The furrowed and barren mudscape
extended eastward as far as Second Street in the city of Albuquerque. Nearly
all the cottonwoods that now grow naturally in the Rio Grande Bosque date back
to that great event of 1942. Ken likes
to point out that he is older than the trees!
Upriver dams, culminating in construction of the huge Cochiti Dam, in 1975,
have practically eliminated the wild flooding of ages past. The Oxbow in the story, a biologically rich
relic of the river's wildest days, lies just across from the Rio Grande Nature
Center. It has been threatened by
cottonwood seedlings need sun and a high water table to germinate, none now
survive under the canopy of the aging trees and the invasive alien Tamarisk (Salt
Cedar) and Russian Olives. A relatively
few younger trees have been produced artificially by thrusting limbs
("poles") that take root.
These often require supplemental water to get started and must be
protected against beavers by wire mesh.
more about the threats to the Rio Grande Bosque, the world's largest cottonwood
The Bosque of the Rio Grande, a Gem to Protect
The Bosque’s Broken Heart: The Future of the Rio Grande Cottonwood
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The Story of Fluff, A Cottonwood Seed
The Cochiti Drum-Maker
Red Feather's Vision
Fluff Grows Up
Golden Eagle was looking for a rabbit. He was hundreds of miles south of his home range. Yesterday he rode the cold north wind. All day he floated easily ahead of the storm. The clouds had stalled over the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Northern New Mexico. This morning he awoke as the sun rose brilliantly into a clear blue sky.
The Cochiti Drum-Maker
Late autumn sunrise cast long shadows over Cochiti Pueblo. Red Feather was already hard at work. The old man had not slept well. Cold winds found the cracks in the adobe walls of his small home. The fire in his stove had to be fed repeatedly. Most troubling was his drive to finish the project. A cup of black coffee and a crust of bread were enough. He put on a sheepskin vest and was out working before the Dog Star had faded in the morning glow.
Red Feather hardly noticed the shadow cast by a large bird. He did not look up. In his hands, he was transforming a stout wooden log. The heavy work was finished. Powerful electric tools had hollowed out the log.
Slowly. Carefully. The carving went on. Now the taps were gentle. The wood shavings became barely visible. Red Feather's hands were rough and scarred. They resembled the bark scattered about his workplace. One final touch of his fingertip against the side of the wooden cylinder...
The sound of the tap was
somehow magnified. It swelled to fill
the little valley. It resounded off the
rocky ledge that kept Red Feather's corral in autumn noonday shade. The few remaining yellow-brown leaves of the
nearby Cottonwood seemed to slowly turn to face the source of the sound. The
very earth heaved a sigh as the vibrations faded.
Now it was time to stretch
pieces of wet hide over both open ends of the log. He cut narrow strips from the hide to make
thongs. He laced the thongs in a zigzag
pattern between the two hides. As the
hide dried it would shrink. The thongs
would shorten. The drum would soon be
ready. Would it keep its perfect sound?
Red Feather was tired and
hungry. He was also patient. He knew that it would be hours before the
hide would fully dry. The afternoon sun
had crept into his work area. It warmed
his back. He thought of the round loaf
of bread that a neighbor had brought to him yesterday. Another bite would taste so good. But the sun was warm. And the wonderful sound still echoed in his
The old man fell into a deep sleep. Yet he was aware. He could feel his skin responding to the warmth of the sun. He could even hear the sound of the hides. Under the heat of the sun the hides shrank and dried and slipped across the rough wood.
Red Feather's Vision
Red Feather watched as the seed pod opened. He knew he was seeing something that happened a long time ago. It was spring. It was the time of the floods. The Rio Grande was the wild river that he remembered in his youth. People dared not to live in the lowlands claimed for all time by the mighty stream.
He saw the chocolate-colored
waters spread up over the banks and cut new channels. The Coyote Willows bent under the force of
the moving fluid, but their roots gripped deeply and firmly. Earlier floods had formed stream-side
hills. Now they caved in, to the renewed
violence of the brave waters. Aged
Cottonwoods toppled and were swept away.
Downy streamers projected from the seed pod and waved in the gentle breezes. Even as the water threatened the gnarled Mother Tree, her last offspring began their journeys into the unknown. Over the ages the Cottonwoods of the Rio Grande Valley had scheduled the release of their cottony seeds to greet the exact time of the high waters. The snowmelt in Colorado had been particularly generous this year.
The waters would recede as
they always did, to create new mudflats and sand bars. Stark and barren islands would lie where the
water had run deep and fast. The waning
flood would abandon cut-off loops to become lakes and marshes where Beaver and
Mallard Duck abounded.
The Mother Tree swayed as a
particularly strong rush of water loosened the last of the soil around her
anchoring roots. There was barely a
sound as her trunk disappeared into the murky water. Her lofty branches, moments ago so proud, so
full of soft green leaves, splashed in turn above the surface as her trunk
rotated underwater. Red Feather recognized
their gesture as not one of surrender, but of success.
For the moment, Fluff was
safe. The breeze carried him high above
the scene of destruction. Around him,
his brothers and sisters and cousins also rode the wind. Their huge numbers would secure the Mother
Tree's legacy, unless the breeze steered them away from the valley and into the
arid foothills. An entire year's progeny
could then be lost. Had it been a dry
spring, the parched earth would welcome not a single baby Cottonwood.
Fluff floated slowly
northward, now losing altitude. His
sister, Lint, was quite nearby. Both hit
the water at about the same time. Red
Feather did not question why he knew male from female seed. Had he given them their names? Would they talk to him?
Many times, he had spoken to and prayed over corn and bean and squash seeds as he sowed his field. Never did he expect a response. In good years they answered with an abundant harvest. In bad years, plant and man suffered together in silence.
The angry waters whirled and
bubbled. Fluff rode high. A lucky breeze floated him across the current
toward the river's bank. One of his
cottony strands somehow tangled with the protruding root of a Coyote
Willow. Fluff was stuck fast.
Days went by as the water
slowly receded. Many of the Cottonwood
seeds that had fallen on high land were quickly eaten by birds or carried by
ants to their dens. Willow Root had
saved him. Then, one large raindrop from
a brief thunderstorm suddenly knocked Fluff from his perch. The little seed thrust new roots into the
moist earth. A tiny trunk reached
The main course of the river
gradually abandoned the U-shaped loop where Fluff and thousands of other
Cottonwood seedlings started out a new life.
This was the Oxbow. Soft green
baby trees covered several small islands.
They rimmed every pool as well as the main channel of the Oxbow. The entire Bosque, the riverside forest, was
Time was compressed as Red
Feather watched the seasons change.
Winters were followed by new floods that continually altered the course
of the river. There never was another
flood so intense as the first.
Beavers chewed on the
Cottonwood saplings. Most disappeared
before their first year. Fluff's sister
also held onto life. She was a survivor
like Fluff. Somehow, Red Feather knew that
his fate was tied to that of Fluff. He
watched intently as the seasons rapidly cycled.
Over the years the brave
river stopped flooding. It flowed lower
in spring than ever before. It was
straighter and shallower most of the time.
No longer was the river free to explore the bottomlands and make new
channels. Something held back the spring
snowmelt. Red Feather realized that the
great dam north of his Pueblo had just been completed.
Fluff Grows Up
Fluff grew into a great tall
tree with evenly spaced branches. He
towered over all the other Cottonwoods in the Oxbow. As he put out new limbs, they shaded out
those beneath. Starved for light, the
lower branches weakened and died. Before
dropping off they rotted and fed numerous insects. Woodpeckers hunted and built homes in the
Irrigation channels were
built. Levees and dams imprisoned and
controlled the great river. The Oxbow
itself dried up completely. Fluff's
roots reached deep into the soil to tap the water that no longer rested just
beneath the surface. Less vigorous
Cottonwoods shriveled and died. New
trees from foreign lands invaded the Bosque.
Salt Cedar and Russian Olive crowded for space around the
Cottonwoods. Their deeper root systems
and greater tolerance for drought gave them an advantage. They had few natural enemies.
Lint reached maturity. She also fed and sheltered the birds and
mammals. Each year she put out pods of
cottony seeds that filled the spring air.
Yet, no new baby Cottonwoods germinated in the greatly changed
Bosque. All the Cottonwoods were growing
old. Nearly all had started life the
year of the great Spring flood. Now
there was a new threat.
The Supervisor led his work crew through the underbrush to the base of Fluff, the great Cottonwood. Filled with awe and respect, he gazed upward into its canopy.
The Supervisor saw the holes of woodpeckers and the homes of paper wasps and hummingbirds. He saw the Cooper's Hawk nest that had been taken over by a Great Horned Owl. He also saw the red tape that marked the tree for execution.
Red Feather tried to cry out as the chain saws roared. He could not see the Supervisor's face. He did not see the great sadness in the man’s eyes.
Sawdust flew. A great circle of white wood was exposed as
the tree fell. Strangely, Red Feather
suddenly became more aware of the chill.
He knew the sun had disappeared behind the Jémez. He felt the cold gusts that signaled an
oncoming storm. The dream was
fading. He so wanted to remain with the
Red Feather saw no reason for the destruction he was witnessing. A large section of the Bosque was being laid bare. Why? The Supervisor turned to face Red Feather. Just as the vision disappeared, Red Feather saw that one of the Supervisor's arms was missing.
As the village disappeared
behind him, Golden Eagle found what he wanted.
Soon the storm would drive the Cottontail Rabbits into their forms. Now they scampered among the Pińons and
Junipers looking for the last green shoots of grass. They were easy targets. The eagle ate his fill. It was time to rest for the night.
He remembered the Cochiti
outcropping. It looked like a promising
haven from the rising winds. The eagle
cut across the winds to retrace his path.
He reached the cliff just as the first snowflakes whirled.
A cranky Raven gave up a
place on the sheltered rock shelf. The
eagle settled down. He then heard the
sound, the music of rawhide and wood.
His marvelous lenses pierced the fading light. He saw the stooped old man walking away from the house. The man was carrying something. The drum. He disappeared into the blinding snowstorm.
Red Feather had stirred himself
from the trance with a great sense of urgency.
He knew better than to face the storm in his flimsy jacket. Yet he did not stop to put on his blanket and
poncho. He carefully picked up the
drum. The touch of the snowflakes set it
alive. The sound embraced him and warmed
The drainage ditch was easy
to follow despite the snow and the dark.
All summer it had returned dirty water to the river from the irrigated
fields. Now it was nearly dry.
A path followed the crest of
the levee created by annual removal of the mud that would otherwise clog the
outlet to the river. Next to the path
was a dirt road, now abandoned.
Red Feather thought about the
man in a pickup who had driven this way to his house only a few days ago. The man had looked so sad. He did not want any money for the beautiful
Cottonwood log. The man with one arm.
The storm had been
brief. The dawn was crisp and calm. Sun shone on patches of wind-driven
snow. The rabbits would be out
early. Golden Eagle opened his wings and
set out over the bottomlands, into the rising sun.
The eagle saw the old man lying so still at the river's edge. He knew the man was not just sleeping. He did not see the drum. By now it had floated far downstream. It had already come to rest. Against a willow root near the Oxbow.
For my Grandchildren