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Hot Day on the Lawn

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Cottonwood bandits, the Wild West, and the right to water

I look out the window through the shades that are drawn to shield the southern sun from penetrating our carpet wherein it might cause desert-like conditions to overtake our fragile houseplants. It’s high noon! I express a thought with an Old West ring to it. 

Showdown! The lawn has gone dormant, but there’s something else out there that needs to be mowed down. Cottonwood: only these trees aren’t meant for hangin’ people! Visible to the less discerning eye because they provide the primary shade across a sector or so of green grass, two very tall Cottonwood trees oversee the activity that’s been obviously conducted in sneaky silence.

I walk outside, sauntering toward the lawn mower like John Wayne. I take a mean look across the green, eyeing every brazen sprout, then spit on the hot asphalt of the driveway. My saliva sizzles into quick evaporation. Must be 95 degrees or hotter, I think, probably 104—which is about the temperature of my dander.

Everywhere I look on this large lawn there are Cottonwood shoots poking their newborn leaves into the air. If I don’t stop this invasion, there will soon be a forest here. Are all these sucklings the root outcroppings of a vast network of underplay going on? There are shoots coming up clear out in the middle, at least 70 feet from the nearest could-be parent. Save for the telltale bumps of root lines and humps, I might have assumed these leafy sprouts were the quick spring of that Cottonwood snow we had those windless days just a month ago in early June. 

But if Cottonwood can grow that fast from a seed you can hardly see, then I’ll be hanged on one. Well, hold on there, boy! (I’m fairly fresh over from Montana, so in my mind, on days that have no reason, I talk like a Montana cowboy too long in the cow hills.) No sense a fussin’. They’s gonna grow anyway, like a bunch a sheep! (I’m certain at this point my eyes are as beady as the squint-look of Clint Eastwood in "Fist Full of Dollars.")

I kick my right leg up over the seat of the John Deere riding lawnmower as if it were a horse waiting to be rid. (Don’t correct the verb…that’s the way they say it in that state next door.) 

I’m terribly aware that I’ve been running the sprinklers over hours, trying to revive the serene look of domestic lawn. I’ve been wondering where all the water went, why the grass wasn’t greening up like it should, allowing only little dances of white drought clover here and there in some obedient semblance of lawn. Some one or some thing has been sucking up this water. 

Must be them Cottonwood! (Stay with me, let the English be coarse. This could be a pretty good movie—besides, I have a point to make.) 

Down in the seat, I roll the long slender Italian cigar of my rough-man’s attitude from one side of my mouth to the other, then start the engine. Four blades come alive beneath me, vibrating the cutting edge of my demeanor over a four-foot-wide swath.

 I shift into second gear and the beast lurches forward toward a shivering, would-be forest of want-to-be saplings. 

“Let’s get out’a here,” I hear one scream over the driving din of a 4-cycle engine.

“I can’t,” yells another. “I’m stuck!” 

The left side of my mouth comes up and let’s out a deep-throated “hee, hee, heeeee!” My chin is down and I’m looking through the dark eyebrows that have yet to turn gray like the rest of my hair. Just try and run, you no good Cotton Dogs!

Some Montana cowboys can be pretty rough, you know. They live out on the edge of the plains just past the last of the Rockies where coyote out-number them and the better of those cowboys prefer to eat a rattlesnake over chicken. So you can just imagine how those young Cottonwood trees must have felt on this, their last day.

I mowed them down without pity, ruthlessly, under the harsh sun. 

Why did I do this? Because they were taking over! Why, three of them had even pushed up through the old asphalt of our driveway as if the glue of black tar was topsoil! How audacious can you get? This land belongs to my family, and I’m going to caretake it, ‘cause caretaking has become my way of life, an’ I don’t mean to imply caution neither, by the words I use!

Fortunately the two bigger trees, whose lives have been considered and whose shady days are numbered, left me alone. Neither threw a branch or even a spray of those pitch-infested seed shells they dropped earlier in the spring. You’ve all seen what I mean: you can see the vestige of their damage on my brown Lincoln Towncar, the older-model car I parked under that Cottonwood over there. The guy at the detail shop told me he could get that Cottonwood pitch off alright, but the “darn stuff eats through the clear coat, so when we take it off for you, it’s going to leave a bunch of little shiny spots all over your car where it kept the ultraviolet rays from reaching the paint surface.” His look was tentative. He didn’t mean to upset me.

I spit again onto the sizzling asphalt, remembering his description of what it would cost to repaint my old rig.

“What right?” I asked out loud of the big tree nearest my mowing perch, “what right do you have to MY water?”

And then I thought about ASARCO and the Rock Creek Mine upstream along the Clark Fork, that greedy bunch’a…, well I don’t need to get carried away. The only similarity I can think of between that prolonged effort to steal away the quality of life and water on this lake is that the roots go deep and the network of manipulation has run a long time beneath the dark soil of politics. 

Who has the right to this water? The ones with the biggest root system, evidently. The ones who, like these two big Cottonwoods, can push their intentions long enough and far enough beneath the domestic green of a non-realizing society, beneath the grass-roots efforts that have fought so valiantly for so long to do something about waking us all up.

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Dwayne Parsons Dwayne Parsons

Tagged as:

water, Rock Creek Mine, Asarco, trees, Cottonwood

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