I first learned about the star in the cottonwood tree many years ago from my friend and naturalist teacher, Pat Rummenie.
As we were walking in the forest, she picked a small, dead cottonwood twig up off of the ground and snapped it at it's "knuckle", (the banded joint that is characteristic of cottonwood branches) and said, "If you are lucky, inside you will see the "Star in the Cottonwood."
In the heartwood at the center of the twig, I saw a five-pointed star shape.
There are many Native American legends and fables about the star and what it means.
I learned one from Mary Louise Defender Wilson, who tells about it in a Dakotah legend.
Like all good folk tales, it is embellished and changes as it is related.
It goes something like this...
The Star in the Cottonwood Tree
A long time ago, when everything was still pretty new, up in the sky there were many, many stars.
Amongst them was a little star that was very interested and curious about everything.
As 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 on it.
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.
As it listened and listened, it could not get enough of listening to the beautiful sound.
Soon the little star heard the other stars calling and 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 closer to 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. Soon (well, what is soon to a star) it began to get very lonely and very sad.
One night when all the stars were close together shining and talking about all the different things stars talk about, the little star asked if it could go back to the village so that it could hear the 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 all 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.