December 20th, 2008 - Star in the Cottonwood


I realize I'm post-dating here, but I wanted to go back to Solstice Day and relate one of my projects that turned into a "fun thing."
As bit of exposition, for the last three solstice celebrations I and sometimes my wife Sharon have helped out with the solstice event they have at Lowry Nature Center at Carver Park.
They have a "tying down the sun" ceremony, a bonfire, a labyrinth to walk, along with crafts, music, and story-telling. 
Our first time at the event three years ago, I somehow agreed to man the twelve-foot tall "Old Man Winter" puppet. 

I figured it would somehow help my fears of social anxiety, though I'm not sure how that works exactly because you're totally hidden inside the thing. Two "helpers" come along and hold the poles for the arms and tell you where to step as you have no clue whatsoever as to what is going on in the outside world. It's probably just as well when you look like that.
I do lead the procession around the building to the bonfire in the back, so I guess it is the only time I have actually been at the front of a parade. I suppose it takes a little sociability to lead a parade even though all anyone sees of you is a giant goggle-eyed paper-mache head on a flowing robe.
This year I again fulfilled my role, and I have to admit I'm feeling more and more like Old Man Winter every year. However, next was where the Fun Thing came in.
As hopefully you noticed in the opening photo, there is a star in the cottonwood tree. 
I found this out when my Master Naturalist teacher, Pat Rummenie, told us a Native American folk tale about the Star in the Cottonwood, about a little star that wants to be near the human beings. I liked it so much that I got an MP3 of it being told by Mary Louise Defender Wilson, and rewrote it a little so that I could tell it (I figure folk tales have a built-in penchant for a little tweaking) and have been relating it to kids and adults during my nature center programs when we find cottonwood branches, and they all seem to really respond to it.
My version goes like this:

The Star in the Cottonwood Tree

A long time ago, when everything was still new, up in the sky were many, many stars.

Amongst them was a little star that was very interested and curious about everything.

This little star travelled across the sky. It would stop and examine so many things.

One day, the little star came down by the earth. It travelled all around the earth, looking at all of the animals, all of the birds, all of the plants, and everything that was alive.

The little star came near a village. There was a sound coming from the village. This sound was so beautiful, so wonderful, that the little star could not believe it. It had never heard anything so beautiful in all of the heavens and all of the places it had visited around the earth. So the little star stayed close to the village.

It listened and listened, it could not get enough of listening to the beautiful sound.

Soon the little star realized, “I am a star, and I should be up in the sky with the other stars.

Even though sometimes we stars are very far apart, I had better go back up there to be with them.”

So the little star went back up into the sky to be with the other stars, but it still kept thinking about the beautiful sound it had heard coming from the village. It began to get very lonely and very sad.

One night when all the stars were shining and close together talking about different things, the little star asked if it could go back to the village so that it could hear that beautiful sound again.

The other stars answered politely that no, it was a star, and that it belonged here, up in the sky with all of the other stars.

The little star didn’t say anything. It tried to be involved in all the things that stars do, shining in the night sky, travelling here and there, dodging the planets, but the little star felt as though it didn’t fit in with the rest of the stars, and it missed the beautiful sound more than ever. It got so lonely, it pleaded with the other stars. “Please may I go back to that village…?

I want to live there and listen to that beautiful sound forever!”

The oldest of the stars said, “I’m sorry little star, but you cannot do that. People live in that village. They have many things to do in order to stay alive; they have to gather their food, they have to build their houses, they have to mend their clothes, they have to teach each other.”

The eldest star continued, “If you go back there, shining around as you do, the people will be distracted, wondering why a star has come down shining around their village. They will be disturbed by you and they won’t be able to get all of their necessary things done.”

So the little star thought and thought.

Finally it said to the other stars, “If I can find a way to be close to that village without them seeing me, can I stay there?” 

The other stars chuckled and said, “Yes little star. If you can find a way to be close to that village without disturbing the people and keeping them from their work, you can go live there.”

So the little star got an idea. It went down by the village, but not too close. It got close enough to hear the beautiful sound, but not so close that it disturbed the people.

It noticed it was next to a tall, tall tree, a cottonwood tree. The tallest tree in the area.

It thought, “This is perfect! I will stay inside this tree so that I can hear the beautiful sound. But I will not disturb the people.” And so it did.

And it listened to its favorite sound, the sound that came from the village.

This was the sound of the people laughing, and talking, and teaching each other.

The star is still inside the cottonwood tree today, listening and hoping to hear more of those beautiful sounds.

So I told the story at the solstice event, as the regularly-scheduled story-teller couldn't make it. The ironic thing was, a couple weeks before this I had gotten an idea to try and cut some cottonwood branches and polish them up to bring out the stars:

I was able to do this and ended up coating them with Super-Glue to make sort of a clear-coat effect. I had intended to drill some holes in them to string them like beads, but that didn't happen. I made as many as I could though, and handed them out to kids after the story. 
It was pretty cool.
The interesting thing about them is that the stars don't necessarily get bigger the farther into the branch you go, nor do they get smaller the farther towards the tip you go. The best place to find them is in "the Knuckle" or joint of the branches where there are some wrinkles and you can snap the branch easily. They seem to occur more in older branches, and are barely noticeable in green wood. Sometimes they are just not there at all no matter how old the branch is.
In cutting them, I found the best tool I had was a Dremel with a ceramic cutting wheel and then emery cloth by hand to finish them out. On some I left the outside bark on, (below) some I took it all off and sanded everything. Some of them are weird. You cut one side, and then after cutting the other side you find that the star is completely different: bigger, smaller, or not there at all!


I've got some other ideas I'd like to try with them.
All in all it was very cool the way everything came together.
So Happy Solstice. Look for the Star in the Cottonwood, but don't go breaking the branches off of the trees now. Use the ones on the ground, the stars are better anyway.