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Nicole Walker | Longreads | January 2020 | 21 minutes (5,273 words)
Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could. — Louise Erdrich
Like white settlers did in the 1800s, the trees are moving west. Unlike the pioneers/white settlers, they’re not going very fast. About 10 miles a decade. It will take a long time for the trees to decimate buffalo populations, turn prairie into wheat, kill indigenous populations, and establish Walmart as the largest employer. Still. They’re coming. Thirsty, trees of the east move westward, as, due to climate change, the rain in the east is drying up. Fortunately, rains in the Midwest grow heavier. The trees, tempted by this, send their seeds a little further to the left. It’s mainly broadleaf, deciduous plants like the Scarlet Oak that want to move. Beware Gambel Oak, you scrubbier version. The big trees are coming for your rain.
Salt Lake City had once been the home of the Ute People. Utah gets its name from the Utes, but no one really talks about them. They had escaped white settling for longer than other Native Americans — mainly because of the time it took to bring first trees, then backhoes, then politics to the Salt Lake Valley.
In the 1600s, they were among the first to procure horses from the Spanish and they traded with Hispanic settlers, but remained unmolested until 1847 when the Mormons arrived. Before that, the Utes and some bands of Shoshone people had lived among the rivers and the lakes, catching fish and organizing plants alongside the banks. The rivers were everyone’s and no one had fences, but then the Mormons came and, although the Mormons didn’t kill the Utes straightaway, they pushed the Utes toward the Uintah Basin where there are few rivers and few fish. After moving Utes to a reservation and then taking that reservation back, they forced them into allotments where, even with irrigation, the ground was too salty and sandy to be of much agricultural use. The Mormons shrugged their shoulders and went back to plan their Days of ’47 Parade. The Ute children were sent to Indian Boarding Schools like Albuquerque High, from where half of them never returned home. Move out, the white settlers said as they pulled lines from the Book of Mormon to claim this as their one true home, where God himself told them to come in, make yourself comfortable.
I don’t remember my exact first cigarette. It must have been at my boyfriend Monty’s house on Chadbourne Street, part of the sixth outcropping of Salt Lake suburbs. Monty’s dad, Randy, smoked Marlboro Reds. Thus, Monty must have smoked Marlboro’s. Thus, so, too, must have I. I was 13. Years before, my aunt had lived on this same street after her first husband left her when she was eight months pregnant with her second son. Chadbourne Street was dotted with matching duplexes that alternated yellow, blue, yellow, blue in a neighborhood otherwise full of detached, five-bedroom family homes. The one my aunt had lived in had been blue. Monty’s was yellow. Chadbourne was a street of transition for most people, but not for Monty who lived there most of his life.
I sat cross-legged on his driveway, scratching the dirt between the square concrete forms with a stick. If I dug out all the dirt, would the concrete shift? Was the dirt keeping the driveway in place? Instead of digging into the dirt with me, Monty dug his hands into the engine of his VW Fastback. He asked for a wrench. I stood up, unwinding my criss-crossed legs, and brought him a crescent wrench.
“Not this one. An adjustable.”
I walked over to the toolbox, sorted through the tools, found the adjustable wrench.
“Need me to hold anything?” I asked.
It’s not so weird to go from helping your dad in his workroom to helping your boyfriend with his VW. My dad had a Karmann Ghia when he was growing up. My dad should have, ostensibly, approved. I worked with tools even if the tool is mainly a stick scratching out driveway dirt.
Did we smoke then? No. If I had been smoking, I would have been sitting on the ground, grinding cigarettes into the ground. Monty’s mom, Kathy, didn’t mind if we smoked. She didn’t like it if we drank her beer. She didn’t mind if we had sex upstairs in Monty’s room, but she would also tell us to hightail it out of there if Monty’s dad was coming home. Monty’s dad was a different kind of drinker than my dad. His was the kind that would say to his son, in front of me, “Isn’t she a little young? Does she even have hair on her pussy?” Kathy chastised Monty’s dad with a long, drawn out, “Randy,” while she shook her head. But she was careful. There were holes in the drywall from Randy getting mad at Kathy, or Monty, or Monty’s two brothers. Kathy rushed us out of the house when she got wind that Randy was on his way home. But sometimes, he didn’t announce his arrival. Sometimes, he came home in the middle of the day like he wanted to catch us. We stole his cigarettes but was that before or after he watched his son wrench the carburetor out of the engine block? As Monty grew more and more frustrated, trying to free the intractable metal, he hit the engine with the screwdriver. Did Randy applaud or spit in disgust when Monty finally successfully detached metal from screw? Monty threw that carburetor across the driveway and down the street, crashing into the bitumen and fully unbuckling in front of the townhouse where my aunt, just a few years ago, used to live.
My house was only three streets away: Oak Ridge, then Creek Road, then Stone Hill, but across all those bulldozer-flattened ridges and hills and creeks diverted, that house was a different world. Five bathrooms. Five bedrooms. For five people! And two of them were my parents. My dad had his own office. In the downstairs TV room, we were among the first to get MTV and HBO. In the basement, my sisters and I could listen to Grease as long as we practiced the piano for 30 minutes each.
In the summer, we hung upside down on our monkey bars given to us by my dad’s boss’s family, the Rowleys. Behind our house, the construction for the Mormon Church hadn’t yet begun. We dragged a mattress through the field. We slid down to the little bit of Deer Creek left to flow unirrigated and unpiped. We threw twigs into the water and ran along the banks to try to reach them before they disappeared underground with the stream. I didn’t even remember the creek until I was grown up and trying to remember something idyllic about my childhood. That stream is either so diverted to irrigate fields, or pumped into the water treatment plant, or property-owned by even-fancier than five-bath home owners, or global warmingly dried up. Maybe it’s still there, hidden behind fences marking private territories. My dad planted trees. He planted roses. My mom, in charge of annuals, tucked marigolds and petunias into the soft beds of amended soil. It’s hard to talk about how lucky we were, especially when I consider the fuckedupedness of my childhood. But bad falls are cushioned by landings made soft with extra money. My mom had grown up 12-people-per-bath poor and my dad two-bedroom-one-bath-for-six-people poor, but this was the 80s. Everyone’s boat was being lifted. At least every white person’s boat.
But money didn’t keep me home. After school, I would leave my five-bedroom, five-bath home for Monty’s three-bedroom, two-bath, duplex so I could smoke cigarettes, hand Monty wrenches, and watch Monty’s mom roll her eyes at Randy when he came home. What did that house provide for me? Freedom to smoke? Freedom from my parents looking at me with disappointment? What 13-year-old has a boyfriend? Even my in-denial parents could only pretend not to smell the smoke that clung to the weft of my sweater.
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It wasn’t that anything was that wrong at my house. My dad left for work at 6:45 a.m. because he swam at Steiner, the University pool, for an hour before he drove the few blocks to his job at TerraTek on Wakara Way, in the research park adjacent to the campus. My mom ironed, put up peaches, ran errands, reconciled the budget for the household and for my dad’s financial advisor business start-up. My dad drank a lot but that didn’t seem to be a problem to me, except once in a while when he got, as the Philip Larkin poem goes, soppy stern, or, when my mom and he were, as the Larkin poem continues, “at one another’s throats.” He slurred his words. He crashed his car. But he also planted carrots, tended to his tomatoes and roses, spent most of the summer repairing the sprinkler system. When I was home, I choreographed dances for myself on his perfectly tended grass in the backyard. I sat under the apple trees he sprayed with insecticide every spring. I smoked cigarettes by myself on the side of the house, believing neither parent had any idea what I was up to.
I had no idea growing up that the street my dad worked on was named after a Shoshone chief. Chief Walkara, also known as Chief Wakara, led the Timpanago and Sanpete bands. He’d done well trading with the white settlers and had the respect of Ute and Shoshone people, and the white settlers, to some degree. But the easy trading relationship didn’t last long past the arrival of Brigham Young in 1847. The change of attitude from slow, forced migration to aggressive relocation came when the Shoshone and Utes resisted being forced onto non-arable land.
“Pushed from the land, Utes led by Wakara retaliated in a series of subsistence raids against isolated Mormon settlements. These raids snowballed until Brigham Young and his fellow Mormons attacked. What became known as the The Walker War (1853-54) signaled the beginning of Ute subsistence displacement and the “open hand, nailed fist” Indian policy of Brigham Young — feeding when possible, fighting when necessary.” The beginning of the erasure of the Ute and Shoshone culture from the Salt Lake Valley.
I think of the word Wakara — known now as the name of a short road in the Wasatch foothills. My dad was a geological engineer with a master’s degree from Columbia. He learned not only how to make money off the land but from inside it — he designed oil drill bits. He paired steel with diamonds that could bite into the hard dirt with such force that the earth itself collapsed like souffle. His job was on Wakara Way. A short road in the Research Park part of the University of Utah.
Timpanago must have been the origin of Mt. Timpanogos, the mountain where I tell my kids, when we drive to visit my mom from Flagstaff to Salt Lake, about the old legend of the woman named Timpanogos whose husband, a Ute Warrior, was sent to battle where he was killed. So sad without him, Timpanogos jumped off a cliff. Her beautiful, died-too-young body, lying prostrate, became the profile of that mountain range, now named after her. You can see her long black hair flow down the mountain’s edge like water. Timpanogos retains some of its tribal heritage not as a people, but as an individual love story that removes the etymology of its name. The actual bodies of humans erased and made entirely into symbol.
Chief Wakara and my dad, Bruce Walker. I imagine them fighting out their individual W names in the Foothills of the University of Utah’s Research Park. Their profiles, enlarged to legend sized, to god sized, to Mt. Timpanogos become the shape of the Wasatch Mountain. The words became The Walker War. I always found my last name suspect, although I thought “Walker” was more likely a slave-owner last name since so many Black people I know have Walker as a last name. It’s probably both. White settlers don’t get to take other people’s land without also stepping on the backs of other people. “Other people” are rungs on a ladder. Five bathrooms and five bedrooms doesn’t come without a fight, maybe even without a war. My dear friend and mentor, Robin Hemley, says that we name the places we live after the people or things we’ve killed. See Orchard Place. See Mohawk Drive.
It’s easy to name things we’ve lost. Forests. Free-flowing rivers. Salmon. Indigenous languages. Whole varietals of apples. I think, if I had to claim a label, I would be a materialist. I mainly believe in things you can touch or smell or see, like a real Timpanogo person or a real cigarette. It’s hard for me to comprehend big abstractions like love or grief or innocence. I don’t believe in innocence. But maybe that’s a defense mechanism. After it came out that the neighbor boy had been having sex with me since I was 11 years old, his mother accused me, to my mother, of spreading issues of Playboy around her backyard.
I wonder now, why would someone spread copies of porn magazines over someone’s backyard? Why would she think it was me? What would my goal have been? I guess the implication was that I had seduced her 15-year-old son. Look at all the beautiful, fully breasted ladies, Joel’s mom must have understood 11-year-old me to be saying. Get turned on and then come hither to fondle my mostly flat chest? Is that what she thought? To protect her child, a mother’s brain will warp itself like a sail around a mast in a hurricane. Those Playboy glossies were her canvasses. She hung onto them for dear life.
This is what I remember about the first time: I was wearing a tube top. My sister, goofing around, pulled it down in front of our babysitter. Not having been so embarrassed since the time my schoolmate, Tim King, asked, “How do you scare a bee, boo-bee?” and then pinched my boob, I ran upstairs to my bedroom. Joel followed. “It’s OK,” he said. “It’s just your goofy little sister. Don’t even worry about it.” He reached over to the flimsy string that held my tube top up and flicked it. Joel had a younger sister. He knew what little sisters were like. I let my sister off the hook. We went back downstairs where Joel fed us chicken fingers. I helped him put my sisters to bed so I could stay up and watch TV my sisters weren’t allowed to watch. Fantasy Island, maybe. It was a Saturday night. Joel reached over for the string he had flicked earlier and, instead of flicking, worked it down, dismantling my tube top. I didn’t say anything. He’d touched the string earlier and I hadn’t said anything then, either. My brain operates on a strict logic: You break it, you buy it. You touch it, it’s yours. A kind of materialism, right? So it was with the tube top, so it went with my pants. What right did I have to say anything now?
I don’t think that it was my idea. But I don’t know. It was the 80s. There really weren’t any rules for how to be an 11year-old. I don’t know, is: why, after that first time, did I ever go back to his house to have sleepovers with his sister? What went through my mind when he opened her bedroom door and motioned for me to come with him? Why go? What short-circuited in my brain? What did I get out of following him to his room? I will be forever stuck in this loop of questions.
I do know that I started to date Monty when I was 13 and started to smoke cigarettes soon thereafter. I will never know if I’m short from smoking cigarettes or from having sex too young. If there’s one drag of a fact I carry with me from with me from the 80s that I can’t escape from it’s that I turned out to be only five-foot three inches tall.
It’s hard to prove whether or not I am short because of genes, or from starting smoking, or from childhood trauma that stuck me in a way of thinking, in a body that was made used to sex at an early age, into belief that negotiation was the only way into love: You give me a little attention. I’ll give you what you want.
But maybe it was the smoking. “The study, published online March 17 in the journal Annals of Epidemiology, found that teenage boys who smoke are on average 2.54 centimetres shorter than non-smokers.” It looks like most of the data I’m looking for applies to boys, but isn’t that always how it is? I had a hernia operation at age 8 from carrying my twin sisters around, one on my back, one on my front. Girls rarely have hernias. Also, this study suggests that girls don’t start smoking until they have passed puberty. The sex was pre-puberty — the smoking not very long after. Passive smoke contributes to stunted growth as well. My dad smoked. Maybe I can blame him both genetically and smokily.
I think of the apple tree, so pruned, cultivated. You can buy dwarf apple trees so you don’t have to use such high ladders for picking, so more of the energy of the tree goes into the fruit rather than the branches and leaves. I don’t usually feel like I lost my innocence. Mainly, I feel like I was shaped by Joels and Montys, mom and dad, my hernia operation, my sisters. Great pruners, but also great waterers and feeders too. You don’t get short by being left alone, but you also might get interesting fruit.
Cultivating apple trees is a paradoxical business — force-stunting them is advantageous. Dwarf apple tree branches grow low, making picking fruit from them easier. Style guides are rife with instructions about how to prune to create smaller trees. You can buy scions that grow small even when grafted to regular size trees. Bred, hybrided, shaped, pampered, tucked, groomed. Sometimes being smaller has its advantages. Oh, what we’ll do in order to grow, and pick, the easiest fruit.
At the house I live in now in Flagstaff, our Home Owners’ Association doesn’t permit fences. We use trees as blinds. I have a row of birch and crabapples — none-of-which are native, but each manages to grow a couple inches of year, with diligent watering. We try to use the rain barrels that captured winter snow and spring rain, but by mid-June, we switch to culinary water for landscaping. By July 4th, we’re praying for monsoons because we don’t want to use too much of the limited water of Flagstaff. And Flagstaff, because of its limited water, charges a premium price per gallon.
In the backyard of my current house, Erik planted a Honeycrisp apple tree for me. He dug a big hole. Added super fancy soil. He wrapped the tree with plastic fencing (this kind is allowed) to keep the deer from eating the soft branches and the would-be leaves. He watered it every day. All the right things one does to grow a tree.
Fall 2018. It was the best year for apples. I had lived in Flagstaff for 10 years and had never seen anything like it. Yellow and red, in parks and lining streets. In people’s backyards, the branches weighed heavy. I went to Michelle’s to pick apples from her trees while she was out of town, so the branches didn’t collapse from the weight. Downtown we collected apple trees from the parks and the medians. Those were delicious. I picked apples alongside the driving range. They tasted horrible, but I collected them anyway. Everywhere, the apples flourished — except in my backyard.
At Monty’s house, I had someone who let me smoke in her house. Monty’s mom, Kathy, made me popcorn in an aluminum pot, shaking it until every kernel was popped. That was her lunch. She liked being thin. It was summer. I walked around the neighborhoods alone until I found myself making my way to her house. I had come from lunch at home. I’d go home for dinner. But in the late afternoon, Monty’s mom told me stories about her mom’s debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and what it was like to clean rooms at Shilo Inn.
We talked about the way things like dandelions dispersed their seeds — by settling down and finding a good spot to grow pretty much anywhere. Kathy’s favorite book was Dandelion Wine. We read the passage about the smell of cut grass back and forth to each other. I don’t know where Monty was while she and I sat and talked about how sometimes you avoid thinking about dying by rubbing dandelion juice under your chin to see if you’re in love. I don’t know where my mom was when she and I talked about how it’s a matter of perception, believing dandelions are flowers because of their fecundity.
I drove with Monty, who I was dating, and Darren, who I would date in the future, out to Willard Bay, with the Windsurfer board sticking out behind the Green VW Bus that was either Darren’s or Monty’s. It was hard to know who owned what. Monty bought the windsurfer using Camel Bucks after Monty and Darren switched from Marlboro Light 100s in the box. That’s a lot of cigarettes, but he had my help when I was out of Marlboro Lights and Darren’s help and Monty’s mom’s help when she wasn’t smoking Randy’s cigarettes. I couldn’t drive yet, so if I wanted to go anywhere, I went where Monty and/or Darren went. Monty and Darren sat in the front seat while I sat in the back on the floor of the bus because we’d taken out the seats to make room for the board. I ate sunflower seeds by the handful and stared at the floor.
“Don’t be such a drag, Nikki.”
Who said it, Monty or Darren?
“Just stop pouting.”
I don’t know if I was pouting or just feeling left out or not sure what exactly my job as a 13-year-old girl hanging out with two sixteen-year-old boys was. I thought I’d paid my debt by bringing cigarettes to the lake. Maybe I was singing “Mad World” by Tears for Fears too loudly. That song, a handful of sunflower seeds, and a Marlboro Light cigarette could make anyone look pathetic.
The sail was big and heavy for me to lift but the board, wide and solid, could handle a lot of tipping. If I could get the sail up, I could make it across the lake. To turn around, I hand to lower the point of the sail toward the back of the board, let it skim the water as I turn-stepped around the mast. Sometimes, I fell in at this point. Monty and Darren laughed, but one of them, I don’t remember which, swam out to help me get the sail up. If it had been Monty, would Darren have been jealous? Maybe I was still dating Monty at this point. He was taller. He could have stood behind me on the board and lifted the sail back toward me, letting me catch the boom. Surely his arms would have touched mine. My back rubbing against his front. I’m unclear: whose front was it? More unclear still: whose back? Darren’s girlfriend’s? Or Monty’s? They were both taller than me. Monty more than Darren. They didn’t start smoking until after they made it mostly through puberty, presumably.
Men replace men. Dirt replaces dirt. At public parks across the West, there are picnic benches on top of pit house mounds. Or there were pit houses before bulldozers leveled the ground and concrete built a dike to make room for boaters and campers. It’s hard to reach archeological sites when people are eating fried chicken on the banks of Willard Bay. Maybe they should try upstream at the Bear River Bird Refuge. There, some of the wetlands have been preserved. But they’re wet so it’s hard to find great archeological evidence. Clay disintegrates back into sand. The ducks yell at you anyway if you try to disturb their nests hiding within the reeds.
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What is to be gained by digging into pit mounds? Perhaps we’ll see evidence of evacuations. All the things the Anasazi didn’t take. All the things the Utes, moved to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in Wyoming, weren’t allowed to take. Perhaps we would see the seeds of trees that aren’t here any longer. Trees that hightailed it out of Utah Valley when they saw the writing on the wall — the orchards that would take all the precedence and all the water.
The trees are moving west but not by volition. The climate drives them on this march. Nature is as cruel as men with muskets, rifles, AK47s. You don’t really have a choice when you’re in lockstep with a dominant system. Not that you chose to be in lockstep either. Trees need water. People need land. You can’t prepare for the future if you don’t know that it’s coming. And yet the trees, they’re hustling as fast as they can.
Growing up, I knew one Native American — my first grade teacher, Mrs. Horsen. She was pregnant, so each student in the class drew a tiny picture that would be pressed onto a quilt for her baby. She only taught the first half of the year. I don’t know if I loved her because she was incredibly smart, or kind, or if she seemed exotic or outcast. Maybe she needed me. Ever since I was very little, I’ve known that I’m the mama. I’ll worry about you to the extreme. It doesn’t mean I can do much to help. Mamas have their own baggage.
When Mrs. Horsen left to have her baby, our first grade class got a substitute. I don’t remember her at all but I do remember the picture of the turtle I drew for Mrs. Horsen — different colored squares of each scute on the turtle’s shell. Was she my first experience with someone leaving me? Is that why I remember her? Or was she evidence of something real that the rest of Utah had seemingly consigned to ghost?
After my parents found out about Joel, Mom and Dad put our house up for sale. Who wants to live across the street from the boy who had sex with your 11-year-old daughter? Or, from my point of view, who wants to watch him as he drives his black Jeep home with a girl in the front seat? Perhaps this was the worst part. To this day, I confuse sex and love. I test husbands. If you really loved me, you wouldn’t have to have sex with me. I test new friends. If you really like me, you’d really want to sleep with me.
The house wouldn’t sell. The market slumped. The For Sale sign sat out in front of our house for six months — about as long as I stared out the window, hoping for and dreading a sign of the black Jeep. I didn’t want to be with Joel. That wasn’t it, I don’t think. I just didn’t want him to have anyone else when all I had was a pile of shame and broken parents. I didn’t want him to go on with his life as normal while I sat upstairs in my sister’s bedroom, looking out the window at the street, at the For Sale sign that never read Sold.
I was still dating Darren when Monty moved out of Chadbourne to go to college with his girlfriend Maria. They got married right before that, when they turned 19. They moved to Ogden. Darren drove us there so he could drink beer and we could have sex. One time, I said no to the sex. He didn’t hit me but we sat in the dark for hours, him drinking one beer after another, while he berated me for leading him on. I was his girlfriend. He drove me everywhere. What did I ever do for him? I owed him. I stayed strong. I didn’t sleep with him. I also didn’t break up with him for four more years.
I never got any taller. I am as tall now as I was in sixth grade. My daughter, Zoe, is 14 and five-foot-six, dwarfing me by three inches. She hasn’t even started her period yet. When she was tiny, my husband called her Susan Monster after a very, very tall character in a Pixar film. Perhaps predictive words affect material reality. I quit smoking when I was trying to get pregnant with her. I don’t miss smoking, but I do wish that all that pent up height that the smoking pushed down into my bones would release and let me rise up. I want to be tall as my husband. Tall as a man.
Some things don’t move. Some things just disappear instead. It’s taken me two years to give in to the fact the Honeycrisp my husband planted is fully dead. Maybe the soil is bad, although a flowering cherry and two birch trees grow nearby. Maybe they’re sucking up all the nutrients. Maybe the Honeycrisp just isn’t into Flagstaff’s climate. It’s the wrong varietal. Somewhere, in Washington State or California, someone plugged a scion of Honeycrisp onto the graft of a Native American Crabapple tree and the Honeycrisp just could not hack it in this high-elevation. Not having legs, it couldn’t move back to California fast enough. Perhaps if it had a role model, some other great apple tree in the yard to look up to, it would have known what it had to do to adjust. But the Flagstaff climate is one of the harshest. The soil, one of the weirdest. It’s extreme weather, lack of water, and inability to reliably grow anything will make it one of the first places that humans have to leave, just like the Sinagua, the People that left Flagstaff in the 1300s. No one is sure where they disappeared to. Perhaps the Hopi absorbed some of their people. Perhaps they became Diné. But what can we see here? The remnants of a pueblo people living in Walnut Canyon, which used to run with water, and now it does not. You cannot see running water in Flagstaff, Arizona.
It’s getting drier here. Warmer. The monsoons didn’t come this year. Maybe it’s time to think about moving. Maybe we’ll take some of these heartier plants of mine and we’ll set down roots somewhere more temperate. Somewhere that we will tell ourselves we chose to go, even though we were, in fact, forced to leave.
* * *
Nicole Walker ‘is the author of the nonfiction collections The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet, Sustainability: A Love Story, Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, and Quench Your Thirst with Salt. She directs the MFA Program at Northern Arizona University.
Editor: Sari Botton