The goal. . .is to live long enough to think: I’ve lived long enough. Arthur Krystal
This is a story about an old person visiting an old tree . .a really old tree. It is comforting at my age to be reminded that there are many such “old things” in the world, and I am barely a blip on the radar screen when it comes to embracing what it means to be really old.
On my recent trip to the southwest I had to find some kind of compromise between the heavy rains and floods that were occurring in Nevada and the unbearably hot temperatures of southern Utah. I left Canyonlands and headed northwest to a destination I had visited once before but had not had time to explore, an ancient aspen tree called Pando, which is derived from a word that means, “I spread.”
The photo you see above shows some of its many branches, hence the meaning of spreading. Though it looks like many trees, it is in fact only one, as aspen “groves” are actually a clone, all of them branches from the same original tree. In this case that original tree is believed to have sprouted from a single seed some 8000 to 13,000 years ago according to Friends of Pando, an organization that works to protect the tree. I found another source (The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman) that offers research from Michael Grant suggesting the actual age to be around 80,000 years. I do not know why this discrepancy in age estimates is so dramatic, but it is difficult to date very old organisms, especially clones, as the original seedling has long ago disappeared. Suffice it to say that it is really old.
If you are someone who likes to collect “nature facts,” as I do, here are a few about Pando. It is located near Fish Lake in central Utah on a fault line between sinks, what geologists call a graben. The roots are believed to spread out as far as 12,000 miles, and and there are more than 40,000 branches, or “stems” that form this single tree. A single branch can live to be about 150 years old. The bark contains chlorophyll, allowing it to produce energy in the cold and darkness of winter. Its scientific name Popularis tremuloides refers to the way in which the leaves are attached at an angle, causing them to “tremble” in the wind, a sound that quickens the aching heart, as I learned on my recent visit.
But this is not a nonfiction treatise on aspens. It is instead the story of an old woman’s solitary walks in beautiful places. Over many years of hiking and backpacking, certain things have moved me in a way that seems deeply personal. Aspens are one of them. On a long backpacking trip in the Pasayten Wilderness many years ago I made camp on the last night, pitching my tent under a spreading aspen. It was early September, and at that elevation the leaves had already started to turn golden. I retreated to my tent early, for it had started to snow lightly, and I was eager for the warmth of goose down and the shelter of rip-stop nylon. It was a wet heavy snow, the kind that often falls in the mountains when summer is quickly on its way to winter. When I awoke the snow was already starting to melt. A sparkling canvas occurred in the canopy above my tent, golden leaves trembling with the silver bright crystals of melting snow, just enough of a breeze to cause them to shimmer in the sunlight. I walked out into the sun and then back to my tent site so that I could stand under that marvel of silver and gold. It was not long before the crystals started to melt and drop onto my head as big water droplets, each one of them with a plop.
Last month I pitched my tent in a crowded campground near the south end of Fish Lake, the tree surrounding me in all directions. I followed a trail that made its way around a cove and then climbed to a high vista above it, all of the time surrounded by that massive tree that is Pando, the largest organism on the planet. When I made it to the top I sat on a log and ate my lunch. It had been a difficult summer, and the healing I had sought on this trip thus far had eluded me. A soft breeze was blowing at this high point, and it caused the aspen leaves to do what they do best, to tremble. They looked and sounded like prayer flags, carrying my longing and sadness to the blue sky above.
Healing has never occurred for me as a deep bellowing voice from on high, nor a flash of light in the east, not even the appearance of a rainbow in a cloudy sky promising better days ahead. Instead it occurrs in the click click clicking of a hummingbird tapping its beak on my sparkling earring and in the soft rustling of aspen leaves overhead.