‘The Country of the Trees…’

rogue aspen tree - 1


Not that many years ago, this rogue aspen tree sprouted next to the porch, and now fills the window of the upstairs dormitory room with golden Autumn light.  When we scraped the earth of its thin layer of dirt here at water’s edge, in building our house 18 years ago, we tried our best to disturb the native vegetation as little as possible.  We had to bring in additional dirt, and the new plantings were all native species, but after all this time, most everything we added has been replaced by the true native species, which were already here, long before us.  Nature always wins.

There were no aspen trees, though our neighbors to the north had a few, so we knew the environment might support them.  We planted six, and year after year, Don fretted over their lackluster growth, and tended them with extra water, and worry.  Over time, just two have survived.  But, this rogue aspen came to us at the porch, and we’ve so enjoyed its summer shade and late turning to yellow each fall, and the sound of its rustling leaves in the slightest breeze.  Then, this summer, right in the middle of the croquet course on the lawn, big protruding bumps popped up all over.  When green shoots had sprouted across the yard each spring, we did not realize that it was because we are living in an expanding aspen grove, and now, it has become a field of big knotty roots to support the tree colony.

Naturalists refer to aspens as “ancient giants”.  They come from a single seed and each trunk shares the same underground root system that grows horizontally underground for up to 100 feet, to form huge genetically identical colonies.  Here’s what our local NPR station said about them on their broadcast, “Field Notes”:  A single seed gave rise to the largest and oldest known aspen colony. The colony, named Pando, covers 106 acres in Utah and contains about 47,000 ramets. It weighs more than 13 million pounds and is one of the largest organisms in the world. Scientists have estimated that Pando is an amazing 80,000 years old…”

In our ignorance, Don tried to saw off one of the knots in the yard this summer, but said it was impossible to do so.  I felt bad about it at the time…not only because I wanted them gone, but once you’ve read The Hidden Life of Trees, your conscience really bothers you when you hurt a tree.  I know that the huge Douglas fir tree, which died some years ago, and now has a sailboat weathervane perched on its dead trunk, did so because we put a stake into it, to hold up one end of the hammock.

Whilst we wait for the aspen grove to cover all the land, the fragile paper birch tree by the water lost all its golden leaves, while we were in Billings over the week-end.  It was on the property when we built, but looked diseased for years, and given how paper birch trees just suddenly fall over in our woods, revealing nothing but air inside their beautiful white bark, it’s a miracle the water front tree has survived.  In the winter time, it looks old and ravaged and near death, but, come summer, it provides cooling shade to a line of beach chairs on the rocks at water’s edge.  It really is something we always look forward to, grateful for another year.

There is no king in their country

and there is no queen

and there are no princes vying for power,

          inventing corruption.

Just as with us many children are born

and some will live and some will die and the country

          will continue.

The weather will always be important.

And there will always be room for the weak, the violets

          and the bloodroot.

When it is cold they will be given blankets of leaves.

When it is hot they will be given shade.

And not out of guilt, neither for a year-end deduction

          but maybe for the cheer of their colours, their

                small flower faces.

They are not like us.

Some will perish to become houses or barns,

          fences and bridges.

Others will endure past the counting of years.

And none will ever speak a single word of complaint,

          as though language, after all,

did not work well enough, was only an early stage.

Neither do they ever have any questions to the gods–

          which one is the real one, and what is the plan.

As though they have been told everything already,

          and are content.

Mary Oliver, The Country of the Trees from her book of poems called ‘Blue Horses’

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