Cottonwood and the River of Time
by Reinhard Stettler
The story of the cottonwood, whose life cycle is so closely attuned to the river's natural dynamics and fluctuating floodplains, is one of perpetual change. But then, in a broader sense, so is the story of all trees, and all kinds of life, says Reinhard Stettler, professor emeritus of forestry at the University of Washington and author of Cottonwood and the River of Time. By examining how trees adapt and persist, Stettler asserts, we just might learn how to preserve and manage our forests for an uncertain future.
Cottonwood and the River of Time looks at some of the approaches scientists have used to unravel the puzzles of the natural world. With a lifetime of work in forestry and genetics to guide him, Reinhard Stettler celebrates all we have learned, as well as the mysteries that still remain, as he examines cottonwoods, their relatives, trees more generally, the evolution of forests, and finally considers the relationship of our forest to our society.
An ever-changing floodplain keeps generating new opportunities for pioneer plants—such as the cottonwood—to settle and prepare the ground for new species. Perpetual change is the story of cottonwoods: and in a broader sense, perpetual change is the story of all life. As rivers meander, climate fluctuates, and glaciers advance and retreat, trees have adapted and persisted. How do they do this? What have learned that will help us preserve and manage our forests for an uncertain future?
In his search for answers, Stettler moves from river floodplains where cottonwood seedlings compete for a foothold; to mountain slopes where aspen (genus Populus) reveal their genetic differences in colorful displays; to the workshops of Renaissance artists who painted their masterpieces on poplar; to labs where geneticists have recently sequenced a cottonwood's genome; to the history of plant domestication and the purposes, risks, and potential benefits of genetic engineering. Stettler considers many types of modern forest, from intensively cultivated tree plantations to old-growth.
By offering lessons in how nature works, as well as how science endeavors to understand nature, Cottonwood and the River of Time illuminates connections between the physical, biological, and social worlds.
About the Author
Reinhard Stettler, professor emeritus of forestry at the University of Washington, is an expert on the genus Populus, which includes cottonwoods, aspens, and other poplars. He was the lead editor of The Biology of Populus, a compendium of research on the genus. Cottonwood and the River of Time is not intended just for the academic and professional audience but for a more general reader.
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