Glacier National Park, Montana. Frothing water fresh from the tongues of glaciers rushing down a mountainside in June. Mile high peaks with snow drifts the same as on a Midwestern farm, but 20 times the size. Snow fields in 70 degree sunlight. Lodge pole pines with aspen understories. And always the sweet pine needle beds on a caressing breeze. Through moss dusted forests, hovering over supercolonies of ants 30 yards square. Bear scat still steaming. Everywhere, ground squirrels deliver their pipsqueak alarm.
In 1936, fire cleared through the mountainside forest on which I stand, stir frying a thick carpet of spruce. The lodge pole pines and aspens, which love the sun, took over. In a few hundred years the spruce, which love the shade, will take over again. But for now, the world belongs to the aspen.
The quaking aspen, known as old woman’s tongue for the way its leaves tremble at the slightest atmospheric provocation, is remarkable. It may be the most widely distributed tree in North America, and perhaps the world. After a fire, the roots of burned out aspens sprout new shoots. A whole stand of aspen may share the same roots. The trees we see may be a hundred years old, but how old are the root systems? A thousand years old? Older maybe? This changes my definition of the organism, and how we measure its size and life span. What seems like many are really one.
© 2015 by Michael C. Just