Position: 35°12’31.8″N 106°36’54.8″W

Not who’s the bosque, dummy! The question is, where’s the bosque? And the answer is wherever the Spanish say there’s a forest. Down in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the bosque clings to the Rio Grande River like a drowning man clings to a life preserver. Huge cottonwood trees line the river’s edge from southern Colorado through New Mexico, Texas and into northern Mexico. In autumn the dense green leaves turn a brilliant yellow-gold. A swathe of fiery colour a half mile wide and a thousand miles long stretches down the Rio Grande’s course. By November, the leaves that haven’t been swept away by early winter storms turn light brown and hang precariously from their branches.

For the uninitiated, the high desert running alongside the Rocky Mountains looks dun, dusty and dull. The uninitiated may be forgiven. Those fortunate enough to spend at least a week exploring America’s southwest develop an appreciation for the layers of subtle colours and the occasional splashes of brilliance from a Perky Sue or Sand Verbena. Any moisture, rain or mist, deepens and intensifies the richness of the palette. Sunlight, particularly sunlight at elevation where the air is thinner and the shadows deeper and darker than at sea level, similarly transmutes the desert environment. Even on well-worn trails in the Cibola National Forest, a setting sun can make the morning’s trail almost unrecognizable.

Twain

Back to cottonwoods. I love cottonwoods and I can’t fully explain why. Perhaps it’s because I miss the elms of my childhood in Chicago. They’re mostly gone now. Perhaps it’s because I read Huckleberry Finn later in life: “It was a monstrous big river down there – sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid day-times; soon as night was most gone, we stopped navigating and tied up – nearly always in the dead water under a tow-head; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows and hid the raft with them.”

Then maybe it’s the tree’s broad, chaotic canopy of shade provided by precariously jutting limbs, some as big as tree trunks, pointing this way and that. The cottonwood’s distinctively fissured bark, as deep as a castle’s crenelations, protects it from predators. The bark also contains salicin, the active ingredient in aspirin. So, it not only looks good, it’s good for you.

The Rio Grande is a well-controlled river. Flooding is vanishingly rare these days. That’s a challenge for the bosque because flooding encourages the growth of new trees. On the other hand, the existing trees have grown tall and beautiful. Our walk along the bosque in October deepened my appreciation for this stately icon of American culture.

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