Conversations Among the Trees

Near Fish Lake in Central Utah is an living thing called Pando, arguably the largest living organism on Earth. It is an aspen clone over a 100 acres large and composed of nearly 50,000 individual units (what naively we might call ’trees’, and which I will call, ‘trees#’ to mark the distinction). Aspens send runners out from a rootball which then shoot up into a new aspen tree#, and although they look like individuals, they are a single organism. In the picture below the Pando can be seen as the darker leaved aspens—all part of the same clone. While the discrete trees# can last 150 years, the clone itself can last for thousands. Estimates of Pando’s age range from 80,000 years (unlikely) to several thousand, with likely estimates ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 years.

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Pando is dying. A host of assaults are combining to put this ancient being in jeopardy. There are several possible processes implicated, but all revolve around the impact that humans on the local ecosystem. It is complex and no one has figured out all the causal elements at play. An apparent cause is that deer are eating the young emerging stems that emanate from the root runners that the older trees# are sending out—there are no babies. About 30 years ago something happened that made the usual deer browsing pressure unstable (deer have been browsing young aspens for thousands of years of course).

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This weekend I gathered to talk about Pando, within the Pando clone itself. We came to consider both the actual, massive and ancient Populus tremuloides thing near Fish Lake, but also to explore the idea of Pando itself. One that has inspired a movement that uses the clone as a symbol of human hope and purpose. Pando Populus is an organization founded by retired Claremont Theological Seminary’s John Cobb, a Whiteheadean processes theologian. It was framed two years ago at a conference I participated in called, ‘Towards an Ecological Civilization.’ The Pando Clone became of symbol of an effort for urban ecological renewal beginning in Los Angles, with an eye of spreading to the rest of the world from there. The key feature of the Pando clone that made it a viable symbol was the interconnected of the individual trees#. They share chemical information, nutrients, and warnings with each other from the complexly interconnected root network (More can be read about this in the wonderful book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by German Forester, Peter Wohlleben. ‎One of the best books I read this year—and this is coming from me, an insect person!!!)

Using the clone as inspiration it was thought that networked together we could find ways to both save Pando, LA, and the world through communicating with others with similar stakes in building a better community. We came to this aspen forest near Fish Lake to take a stab at a beginning. We were diverse, people of every hue and shade, varied backgrounds— philosophers, chefs, designers, artists, Mormon ranchers, ecologists, theologians, writers, architects, clergy members, nuns, and others. We came to talk. We came to the aspens to feel its presence and be inspired by what it means to be connected as one.

Some of the images I will never forget: Ranchers barbecuing and sharing fresh hamburgers for tree huggers; an inner-city black urban activist talking to a white Mormon cowboy; a member of the Paiute Council sharing with the group how much the land meant to her and her tribe and how she could feel something had gone missing since the rituals her people performed had not been continued; a nun from the Philippians sharing with us a mandala she had drawn under the trees; an Episcopal Minister explaining how institutions of fear destroy, while those of love flourish; talking to a man who had made a boat of trash bottles and sailed to Hawaii to bring attention to how plastic waste is destroying our oceans; an aspen ecologist passionately explaining why these trees matter; a science writer providing lessons on how to express the feelings we were experiencing; the catch in a woman’s voice who had spent her life studying the canyonlands of Utah as she spoke about the loss of this forest; and many more whose lives intertwined with this motley gang of caring people gathered under the trees.

I did not name these people (because I do not have their permission), and perhaps you will complain that have reduced them labels or a single pole of a strange attractor to which others might be drawn to or repelled by—I don’t want that—these people became friends and fellow sojourners. They are not in anyway only instances of typecast members of their gender, role, race, or community. But, something marvelous happened there under the shimmering leaves of the aspens that I will never forget, and which relied on both our shared world and our differences.

It taught me mostly that conversations matter, even among people who on the surface may disagree. Yes. Conversations matter. Both for trees and for people.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I had no idea about this; thanks for sharing the experience with us.

  2. Lovely, Steve, thank you.

    The demise of the Pando is a big part of the reason we started Torrey House Press . In 2010 we spent a week in the area doing a science led cottonwood, willow and aspen assessment. The assessment was bleak, primarily because of lack of “recruitment” (no new trees and willows) due to over browsing. We determined to use stories to help raise conservation awareness.

    The issue I just have not figured out how to effectively publicize is the tremendous damage caused to our ecosystems in our arid West by the unrelenting practice of public land livestock grazing. The land simply cannot sustain it. The deer have been here for eons, the 1500 pound cows not so much. I admit I really cringe to hear of hamburgers in the Pando.

  3. @mark Bailey A dead cow, a delicious burger. This should be good for Pando ;)

  4. Great post.

    I remember visiting Lytle “Ranch,” a nature preserve in Southern Utah owned by BYU, many years ago. The preserve was fenced off from the grazing land, and on the fence line it was very obvious how much damage grazing does. In the preserve, wildflowers flourished. On the outside, they did not. Of course, that in turn impacts the entire ecosystem, and not just the wildflowers.

    As far as the change in deer behavior being responsible for the death of the aspen, do we know why the deer behavior changed? Is it due to an elimination of a predator or some other factor?

  5. What a great event. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Tim, Yes, what happens is that Fish Lake is a refuge. Deer know when it is hunting season and the population goes to that area to avoid hunters. They concentrate there during the various hunting seasons. Cows only go through for a week or so when they are driven between winter and summer ranges and for Fish Lake do not seem to be the culprit and it’s more the concentration of deer who have gone there for refuge. Of course when you consider the larger ecosystem it is very complex but both cows and large ungulates are implicated in ecosystem destruction. There are no top predators beside humans, so some complex management has to take place. That is why partnering with all the stakeholders is important.

  7. Really lovely. Conservation is such valuable and meaningful work — and Pando is the perfect poster child.

  8. Praising the incredible [Beyond Meat] veggie burgers that Pando provided and the ranchers also grilled as requested.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this. I only learned about Pando within the last year or two. My mind was blown.

    Reading your line “Pando is dying.” pierced my heart.

  10. I hadn’t heard of Pando before. This is both lovely and tragic. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  11. This reflection is all at once sad and lovely. So much hope rests in conversation.

  12. Thanks, Steve. As always, much to think about. And questions about what to do.

  13. What happened 30 years ago?

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