For an illustrated version, see The Environmentor vol 6 no 5 pp 19-22.
Long ago, rabbits had long bushy tails like squirrels. They were very proud of their tails.
One day, Mama Rabbit was busy working in the burrow. Baby Bunny had nobody to play with. “I'm bored,” he nagged. “Mama, come for a walk in the woods with me.” But Mama had too much work to do.
"I'm a BIG Bunny," said Baby Bunny, "I can help!" But everything he tried, he messed up. (Such as sweeping the floor, gathering berries, grinding corn meal.) He really was too small. But he kept nagging.
Finally Mama Rabbit suggested, “Maybe you are big enough to go for a walk by yourself!"
"Oh yes!" said Baby Bunny, "I'm a BIG Bunny!"
Mama Rabbit said, "The path from our house into the woods is open and sunny and safe -- as far as the cottonwood tree. You can walk alone on this part of the path. But when you reach the cottonwood tree, you must turn around and come home. Can you do that?"
"Oh yes! But Mama, what's a cottonwood tree?"
"A cottonwood tree is very easy to recognize. It has a tall, straight trunk with silver-grey bark." As she spoke, she gestured with her front paws. (You do it too) "It has triangle-shaped leaves that wave gently in the wind, making a sound like rain. At this time of year, it has cotton-covered seeds that fall to the ground and pile up like snow."
Baby Bunny repeated her words and her gestures. (You repeat and gesture, encouraging listeners to join in.) "I can remember that! I can go for a walk by myself!"
Baby Bunny started out walking. (Make a bunny with one hand by holding two fingers up over a fist.) At first he was scared and shy... Hop. Hop. Hop. (Hop your hand slowly; encourage listeners.)
Then he began to relax. The path was sunny and safe. Hop hop. Hop hop. He was having fun!
Suddenly he saw a tree with a tall straight trunk (everybody gesture together)
with silver-grey bark
triangle shaped leaves going back and forth in the wind
making a sound like rain
and cotton-covered seeds
piling up on the ground like snow.
He knew what that was: the cottonwood tree. And he knew that meant he was supposed to stop, turn around, and go back home.
"But I don't want to stop. I'm having fun. I'm a great big brave Bunny! I can keep going." So he did. Hop hop hop hop! Hop hop hop hop. Hop … hop … hop …hop …
Because this part of the path was not open and sunny. Trees and sticker vines made a roof over the path. It was like a dark tunnel, very scary and creepy. Hop … hop … hop …hop …
Then Baby Bunny heard a terrifying sound: "Whoot! whoo … Whoot! whooo …"
It was an owl. And owls like to eat Baby Bunnies!
But his Mama and Papa had taught him what to do. He hopped off the path into the sticker vines, and he crouched very low. Then he held VERY still -- because owls can only notice things that move. If you hold still and don't make a sound, you are invisible to them!
Baby Bunny stayed still in the sticker vines while the owl flew over, "Whoot! whoo … Whoot! whooo …"
Baby Bunny thought, "I'm invisible, I'm invisible, I'm invisible," and the owl... just... flew away!
Baby Bunny sat up. "Whew! That was close! I want to go home!"
He tried to hop back onto the path, but something was holding his long bushy tail. Really it was caught in the sticker vines, but he was so frightened, he did not look back to see. He was so frightened that he pulled and pulled to get free. He pulled so hard that --- snap!! -- his tail broke off!
Baby Bunny hopped back onto the path and hopped fast, hop hop hop hop, until he saw a tree with --
a tall straight trunk (all gesture together),
triangle shaped leaves making a sound like rain, and
cotton-covered seeds piling up on the ground like snow.
He knew what that was: the cottonwood tree. And he knew that meant he was back at the safe, sunny part of the path.
He was safe. But the place on his back, where his tail used to be, was very sore. He wanted something soft to put on that hurting place.
He saw the cottonwood tree's fluffy seeds on the ground, piled up like snow. He gathered pawsful of cotton and packed them together into a ball, the way you would make a snowball. He put it on his back, in the place where his tail used to be. That felt better.
Baby Bunny hopped slowly home, Hop … hop … hop …hop . Mama Rabbit said, "Oh, Baby Bunny, you were gone such a long time! You must have had a lovely walk."
Baby Bunny said, "No …" and showed her what had happened to his tail.
Since that time, they say, the rabbits no longer have long bushy tails like squirrels. They just have a little white ball that looks like cotton. And they are not proud of it. They sit on it, to hide it. We can only see it when they run away.
Many folktales pretend to explain how various animals got short tails (A2378.4.1). This one explains not just the loss of the long bushy tail, but also the substitution of a “ball of cotton.”
You will probably have a smart 6yr old who objects, “That may explain how ONE rabbit got a short tail, but what about the other rabbits?” Ask her, how would she explain it? (How would you?)
When young listeners join in on the gestures that illustrate this story, the activity helps to drain off some of the wiggly energy that can make it hard for them to sit still and listen. And those gestures will help them to remember how to recognize a cottonwood tree when they see one!
FACTS about cottonwoods
Willa Cather described cottonwoods: “the light-reflecting, wind-loving trees of the desert, whose roots are always seeking water and whose leaves are always talking about it, making the sound of rain.” (The Song of the Lark, start of chapter VI).
Those leaves are roughly triangular, giving cottonwoods their species name Populus deltoides. But it's the flattened petiole (leaf stalk) that makes those leaves flip and flutter against one another in the wind, “making the sound of rain.”
In early summer when cottonwood trees drop their seeds, many other wild and cultivated plants are tossing invisible pollen to the winds. Allergy sufferers blame what they can see: cottonwood seeds! But in fact the seeds have little if any allergenic power. Cottonwood pollen is far more likely to cause trouble – but the pollen was shed back in the spring, when oak and redcedar pollens were also making allergy sufferers miserable. So it's unfair to blame cottonwoods, especially not the seeds.
Cottonwood trees are dioecious (“dye E shus”): male and female parts grow on separate individual trees. The tree in the story must have been female. Her cotton can blow up to five miles! If gardeners don't want the fluffy white seeds “piling up like snow” in their yards, they may prefer to plant a male.
Cottonwood trees indeed grow tall, up to 150 feet when they have plenty of water. Once established, they send their roots deep and can tolerate drought. They formed the tall spine of the “shelterbelt” plantings of trees that helped counter Oklahoma's Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Their thick bark helps them to survive prairie grass fires.
This fast growth produces soft, light wood, and the branches break off easily. However, the trees can stay alive even when the trunk has been hollowed out, providing valuable shelter for wildlife. Several species of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) eat the leaves.
I heard a version of this story from Te Ata Fisher, a Chickasaw Indian storyteller (now deceased) who was designated as a Living Treasure of Oklahoma and has been inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. We think she learned it from Seneca nation sources.
In 2016 the Chickasaw Nation released Te Ata, a dramatic movie based on her life story.