The first time I saw this particular grove of trees, I was five years old. Swaddled in layer after layer of clothing I sat perched on top of a horse with my father, nearly immobilized by my parent’s successful attempts to keep me from catching cold. As we moved along the trail, my view of the scenery was intermittently obscured by clouds that followed the rhythm of my breath as it crystallized and disappeared in front of me.
Apart from the sound of our progress, the silence was palpable. We were pushing forward with the slow determination that fresh snowfall requires and, little by little, open plains transformed into the close quarters of a small forest. Inside the graphic landscape of black and white branches snow was floating in the wind. Needless to say, it was love at first sight.
The next summer, after my family purchased the land we had explored in the winter, we camped there frequently. As my parents made plans for the cabin they hoped to build, my siblings and I would sneak away and spend the remaining hours of daylight in the woods. We would while away the afternoon building forts, playing games, and making flower crowns. There is a very specific sound that aspen leaves make when they move in the wind. It’s deep and powerful but light, like the sound of a distant waterfall. I spent countless hours daydreaming to that score, mixing fantasy and reality into a seed for the future. Year after year as tents were replaced by walls and babies transformed into children and teenagers, we continued to visit that space. Although my relationship to the forest waxed and waned (the way things do as children grow and change), it was always there for me when I needed it. Throughout my youth and adolescence it listened to my every word and wish, keeping my secrets in the rings of its trees.
Aspen forests are unique organisms. At first glance it’s just like looking at any other grouping of trees, a collection of individual stalks reaching their leaves up toward the warmth of the sun. On the surface, they are a thousand singular and separate entities, each with their own character and history. Yet underneath that facade, in the depth of the soil, there is a different story to tell. There is an ancient and intricate system that far exceeds the ephemeral existence of its surface elements. There is a network of living communication that links each and every tree. There are roots.
Although the life span of an aspen tree on the surface is at most 150 years, their roots can be thousands of years old. Starting with a single seedling, new trees are almost always produced vegetatively (rather than by seed), making each new sapling a shoot from the same organism. Reaching out to explore new territories the roots suckers can travel over one hundred feet before deciding to make their way to the surface. This results in quickly spreading colonies that make up some of the largest organisms on earth. Because of this trait, aspen are resilient. They can weather forest fires and come back in full force. When clear cut they can start fresh, sending up new shoots that flourish and grow quickly. Through their intricate root system they can share nutrients and water across long distances allowing trees to grow happily in locations and conditions they wouldn’t if not for the their relationship to each other.
Yet, in the same moment, aspen are also vulnerable. Because of their connection (the very structure that provides them their fortitude), stresses and environmental factors can weaken entire forests, causing them to die out completely. Though it is still incredibly beautiful, the small grove that I grew up exploring is also beginning to show signs of struggle as it attempts to navigate the new environmental conditions it finds itself in.
As a child the forest gave me a place to explore my imagination. It allowed me the space to think and play and experiment. It taught me how to picture the world I wanted to inhabit and how to inhabit the world I was in. As an adult, those lessons still ring true, but now there is another that I take away. With the force and fragility of life pulsing beneath my feet the aspen remind me of our tenuousness and our tenacity, of our ephemeral lives and our ancient roots. They remind me to be conscious of our collective strength and potential and also to take care. We are not alone in our actions and decisions, they travel though our connections to each other and the world we live in. In order to continue to grow and flourish we have to remember our relationship to these systems. We have to remember what connects us together through time and space, ideas and beliefs. We have to remember our roots.
May you and your family return often to the forests and wild spaces that inspire you, and connect you.