As a boy, Ron Glaser tied ropes to the twisting branches of cottonwood trees and swung over the irrigation ditches crisscrossing the fertile stretch of land along the Rio Grande known as the North Valley.
“We had one right behind the Smith’s over here by Solar Road,” he says. “Some of these kids still use it to play.”
Years later, the 47-year-old Rio Grande Nature Center volunteer shows the same wonder he must have felt riding ropes through the sky.
His eyes widen as he approaches the gold-crowned behemoths dotting the North Valley in the fall. He points excitedly at the massive, gnarled trunks before circling them heel-to-toe to see just how big they get.
And then there’s the map Glaser drew based upon a lifetime of walking the North Valley’s trails.
Every squiggly gold star on it – 20 so far – marks a giant cottonwood Glaser has watched during the years as the neighborhood around it changed from farmland and open space to homes and busy streets.
“There’s at least 50 percent more houses here than when I was a teenager,” Glaser says. “There’s a lot more cars down here, a lot more noise.”
But not so much noise that it rules out quiet walks along the valley’s acequias, or irrigation ditches, some dug in the 18th century by the valley’s early settlers to water their farmland.
Glaser hikes through the North Valley three or four times a week, weaving along back yards, empty lots and the occasional graffiti-covered fence that makes him wince.
Many of the cottonwoods he has mapped out straddle the ditches, and the majority grow in what was once the flood plain of Bear Canyon Arroyo.
They break up from the earth like the petrified tentacles of a frenzied, massive octopus, and it’s puzzling how such giants thrived so far from the river.
Glaser explains: Once upon a time, floodwater flowed freely through the arroyo – which crosses the North Valley from the northeast to southwest – and created the right conditions for cottonwoods to thrive.
“The only way a cottonwood will sprout is if it has water for a long period of time,” he says. “Because the valley doesn’t flood like it used to, . . . there’s no new cottonwoods in the valley now.”
Other threats to cottonwoods include a strained water supply, leaf beetles and fires, according to retired University of New Mexico biology professor Cliff Crawford.
“We have altered the flow of the river greatly, and we cause most of the fires in the bosque,” he says. “We may love the cottonwoods, but we haven’t done them any great favors.”
Crawford and Glaser both noted flourishing nonnative plant species such as the Siberian elm are squeezing the limited resources available to the cottonwoods.
“I feel that the biggest threat to the Rio Grande cottonwood is the elm trees,” Glaser says. “I kind of hate elm trees.”
To see what the North Valley once was, Glaser looks to Los Poblanos open space just north of MontaÃ±o Road Northwest. The fields of alfalfa, sunflowers, community farming plots and stretches of corn lie quiet as if wrapped in a blanket.”When I was growing up, 50 to 70 percent of the North Valley was like this,” Glaser says, pointing to the edge of the cropped ground.
“Look around where the green starts and you’ll see. . . . See the gray cranes walking in there?”
Hawks, falcons, coyotes and geese also make their way through Los Poblanos, Glaser said.
“Sometimes I’ll just go and I’ll hide in the middle of a field and the birds . . . will go within 5 or 10 feet of me,” he says. “If we start eliminating all this and making houses and developing it and putting concrete everywhere, sights like that will no longer exist in this part of the world.”
Glaser’s own back yard – complete with two ponds, sunflowers and a turkey who survived a coyote attack (though three others did not) – is a preserve of sorts. Cottonwood seeds drift in and take root along the ponds’ edges.
When they’re large enough, Glaser digs them up and gives them to the Rio Grande Nature Center to sell. Three or four years down the line, he might try to buy land from his neighbors for a wild game refuge.
Glaser estimates the cost would be around $1 million, and he could raise most of it by going back to work in the pharmaceutical industry. He retired in 2000.
In the meantime, Glaser volunteers at the Rio Grande Nature Center, working to preserve the bosque and cottonwoods, some of which – with circumferences at their base ranging from 6 to 23 feet – he maintains could be as old as 300 years. Crawford estimated a bosque cottonwood’s maximum age to be around 100 years.
Even if the tree’s age is not agreed upon, their majesty and beauty often is. Jessica Sapunar-Jursich, interpretive park ranger with the Rio Grande Nature Center, led a bicycle tour of the cottonwoods based upon Glaser’s map in October; the tour’s participants regarded the trees with some reverence, she said.
Glaser describes the tour as “a country walk in the middle of the city.” He hopes it will give others the chance to enjoy the North Valley’s cottonwoods as much as he does.
“If you look at a cottonwood, they kind of have a waxy shine on the leaves, and when the sun hits them just right, they glisten,” he says. “If we don’t do something, it’s going to be a vanishing breed.”