The Cottonwood Trail
By: Brad Cole

  It was a frigid Easter Sunday morning with a wedge of light appearing in the east like a revelation rising up to challenge the darkness of night. Having decided earlier to go ice fishing, I grabbed all my gear, got on my coat and boots, walked across the village where abandoned aluminum boats were sitting on the frozen riverbank. The morning light reflected off of the thick and wavy ice. A church bell clanged and banged in the distance as I walked across the Tuluksak River. A local trail opened up on the opposite bank with snowmachine and four-wheeler tracks that headed single file into the deep snowy woods.

  A dense thicket of cottonwood trees surrounded the trail on all sides. The thick weaving of dark blue tree shadows laced and interlaced continuously across the brilliant white snow on the forest floor. The grey-black trees were swaying gracefully with their tall barren branches clicketing, clacketing, squeeking, and batting each other about in the cold wind. Listening to a sudden gush that came blowing through I wondered if the trees let the wind speak for them, it having a greater clarity of presence. I loved looking up into the tall branches and thought to myself that a nation of trees dwells in these woods but they do not have the illusions of power and politics that man possesses.

  Hearing the hollowed sounds that dwell within the gestures of wind, I thought it had such an ancient and respectable resonance. I could feel myself harmonizing with it, almost like a flame being drawn into a far greater and more powerful fire. I felt that the most beautiful thing about trees is the way they give themselves away to the slightest breeze of an endlessly blue sky.

  I come often to the woods to seek its harmony and healing. We all need a secure sanctuary from a world that can so easily tear people apart.

  I believe that the beauty and truthfulness of native culture was and is inspired by the wilderness. The message of the forest is to harmonize with earthly movements and relationships, I felt. This is the way it can teach one how to move from darkness to light, from brokenness to wholeness. To understand ones culture is to better understand ones own potential and life’s battle for spiritual growth and insight, while politics only imprisons the human soul.

  Walking along the crunching, curving trail for about twenty minutes I saw that the cottonwoods trees were becoming smaller and knew that I was approaching the Kuskokwim River. A thin grove of willow trees bordered the forest on the bank. Emerging from the shadowy forest the wide river appeared as an airy revelation that was blanketed by an open blue sky. It looked so wild and free, grandly coated with heavy ice, snow and wind blown piles of dark sand. About half a mile across and probably going a couple hundred miles northeast I knew this river went far across Alaska.

  Walking onto the river I saw a few of holes on the ice, but nobody was fishing. The wind was too strong and cold out here or perhaps, still wondering about the situation, they went to church for Easter services. I was hoping to find some people that I could visit with while fishing myself. But it was not to be.

  Turning back toward the bank to return to the forest trail, I thought about how culture can create deep bonds in a people; the more united and harmonious the people are the more prosperous the community will be. Relationships are a great and important form of wealth. A strong culture is rich enough to have many pathways leading through the strange sounding and shadow-filled forest of life. Culture is a gift from the wild like a fish one brings home for the family supper, freshly pulled out of an icy hole on a cold river.

  My mind was still dreaming about the whispering wind and the dancing shadows as I walked up the steep icy bank to go back the way I had arrived. The forest was a shelter from the cold wind and I would be warm while walking under the barren but battling branches of the old cottonwood trail. I would return to my home where I first saw the morning light of Easter taking hold of the night to rid the sky of darkness.