Quaking Aspen (populus tremuloides)

 (Music Suggestion: “The Highest Journey” by M83)

Take the quaking aspen.

Lately we think a lot about life, and our decision not to bring any of it into this world. For years we thought otherwise, that someday our seed might create and nurture a child, just the one. We gave it names and nicknames, painted stories and soft futures, wondered where the world might take them—who they might become. We’re not exactly sure what changed or shifted, but something did (or, perhaps, it had been there all along, lurking, we can’t be sure). For so long it made us self-conscious and we worried what people might think since there is, yes there is, a certain amount of sadness and pity lobbed our way when we announce we’ll be carving our own strange path in this world, gifting our remnants, when we die, to no one. 

But we’re older now, and we’re not just content with our choices, but committed: we feel, to some degree, this has allowed us to fully immerse ourselves in the world we live in, to praise the atoms we pass through, not just the exotic and faraway, but also the humble and nearby: the grass that swipes against our ankles while walking our dog, the honeyed grove of Japanese tree lilacs we pass on our way to work, the red oak and elm and sycamore and bronze bugleweed growing always, righteously, wherever it can. 

But listen: we haven’t forgotten the quaking aspen, not at all. It’s a beautiful tree, tall and graceful with green-gray bark stippled with dark-thick horizontal scars and black knots, green leaves transforming golden in the autumn. It has so many names you might know—trembling aspect, golden aspen, white poplar, popple—but here’s another: Pando.

How do you describe a being like Pando? How do you do it justice? The simple answer is this: it is a clonal colony of an individual male tree connected by a super-colossal root system that, because of a lack of competition from conifers and an ideal growing environment, rockets up a new stem (what we might call a trunk, by the looks of it) when it feels necessary, feeds and cradles it, repeats repeats repeats. Pando, the heaviest known organism in the world (6,000,000 kilograms), one of the oldest (estimated to be nearly 80,000 years old), occupies 106 acres of land. And here’s the thing: we can recite numbers, we can see it and touch the bark and wonder what it feels when we gently trace our palms along it, twizzle a leaf between our thumb and forefinger, whisper-sing poetry at it, feel our body vibrate with life just being in its presence, but we can’t really fathom it, can we? 

Pando is a titan: 80,00o years ago, when it was going to seed, just sprouting, discovering this world, this sky, these rains, this celestial loam, we were in the Middle Paleolithic. Modern humans were spreading to Asia, 65,000 years before they’d reach the Americas—south-central Utah, where Pando, by then, was strong and vibrant and already fiercely crowning the horizon. Life is about perspective, and Pando has seen it all: the earth opening up, the sky ablaze, wars and famine and greed and prosperity and terror and happiness and heartbreak and god, of course, so much love.  

Wait, there’s an addendum: we do know, in part, why we will never bear our own children, and researchers now call it Climate Depression, hopelessness and resignation about the state of the world, that it’s too late, on some grand scale, to do anything about it, to make everyone care. 

(It is a funny thing, to cling so fiercely, so loyally, to the very thing that causes us to not want to have children of our own, to feel such a potent connection with nature, to rear and devote our time to explaining the remarkable bits and pieces we don’t know, to drink in the awe every day, if we can, even in some small way. We’ll never be able to fully explain any of it, but we vow to spend a whole life trying.)

We consider ourselves to be optimistic, always have, and writing about nature is, in part, to educate, to share our love of this awe-inspiring world with everyone, the sorcery that is nature. But we’d be lying if we weren’t sad about the state of things, watching grown men stomping honeybees on the pavement and laughing, catching peers carving cuss words into paperbark maple trees in the park, passers-by ignoring the dying red admiral butterflies stilling at their feet, refusing to help, to acknowledge anything’s wrong at all. And we know now that Pando is dying, but we aren’t sure from what. It hasn’t grown in nearly forty years. We are trying to save it, but how can you save a being whose language you only barely comprehend? And what if—if we may be so bold—Pando is choosing this moment to die, dismayed at what it sees happening there in the wide world? What then?

We all know the story of space stuff, how we’re made from it, and it’s a beautiful story, but here’s another for you, dear reader: 

Take You. 

You’re born of this earth, whether you realize it or not. Water and food becomes milk. Your chubby little fingers touch the wood floor, the dirt in your yard, a stick. You trade atoms, lose skin cells. You camp, or hike, or walk to school or work. You brush against leaves, crawl into a treehouse, taste fresh mint in your childhood friend’s backyard, smear wild raspberries on your cheeks for fun. You learn what it’s like to be alone in a strange wood, how you can find comfort there among the greenlife, how you can always orient yourself home. You drink water filtered through moss along a mountain path, drink glacier water fresh from the source and marvel at its purity, you name the shapes of clouds and fear ticks and save birds who’ve flown indoors by accident, carefully scooping them up and putting them back outside. You learn the latin names of plants, out of respect, and what uses they have holistically, medicinally, emotionally. You commit yourself to doing what you can—on your block, your road, your town, your land—and hope, hope, hope that it’s something.

And maybe the world has shifted itself because of what we’ve done, how careless we’ve been, and there is no going back. We have children, or we don’t, we die of old age or we die tragically young. We try to shield ourselves from the wild world, commit to lives walled off from it, but we always, always return, perhaps the only certainty there is.

Deep breaths, because even if there is no going back, and no passing on, it’s about how we take care of this place, and each other, now, isn’t it? The trees exhale oxygen, giving us life. Pando sighs so we can breathe. Neither the trees, nor we, asked for this partnership, but here we are, inexorably intertwined. 

What do we make of the time we have left, this paradise that surrounds us? What can we do to help?

Deep breaths. 

Say a prayer, recite a poem, sing a hymn. Go to the mountains, the ocean, let yourself feel small and insignificant and yet: consequential. Just be, because there is so much to be grateful for still.

Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find his illustrations and writing at robertjamesrussell.com, or on Twitter/Instagram at @robhollywood.

Artwork by: Robert James Russell