I love aspen trees. When I was a child, my dad often traveled on business and came home with gifts for us. I have abalone jewelry from New Zealand, traditional clothing from India, and coins and pottery from Guatemala. But one of my favorite keepsakes came from a place much less exotic.
When I was eight or nine, my dad came home from Colorado with an aspen leaf pendant for me and each of my sisters. Nothing flashy, just little rust-colored leaves preserved inside a clear coating and dangling from golden chains.
I had never seen an aspen tree, so the gift didn’t initially hold any particular significance for me. It was pretty, and it was from my father. I liked it.
But it came to mean something altogether different to me when I was 11, and my father took us to the aspens.
I remember that everything felt dangerous once we crossed west of the Mississippi. All I knew about Kansas was that it was a popular hang-out for tornadoes, and I expected one to drop out of the clouds at any moment. The roads across the Great Plains had never heard of curves, and the corn and wheat crowded in shoulder to shoulder, waving like spectators for a 100-mile parade. So much distance passed between towns that I worried a tank of gas would not get us from one to the next.
Then we reached the desert of eastern Colorado. Brown, scrubby, flat – I had never seen a place with so little vegetation. For hundreds of miles, I felt exposed. I was sure that if I lingered there, I would shrivel up and blow away.
Ah, but then the mountains: green and wild, crisp and bright, dotted with blossoms I’d never seen before – Columbine and Indian Paintbrush. And the lakes! Perfect, pure, and shockingly cold. This place had its own dangers – there were so many ways to get lost or eaten – but it was bursting with life and beauty.
We took a shuttle to the Maroon Lake trailhead. A few steps from the parking lot brought us to the water’s edge. You could see the pebbled lake bottom all the way out to the middle, where the reflection of the Maroon Bells’ rocky face took over. I could have stayed there all day, but I’m glad my parents prodded me up the trail toward the Bells. That is where I met the aspens.
Something I’ve learned about aspen trees is that you rarely see a solitary one. They colonize, sending up new saplings from their roots, multiplying into groves. So you don’t appreciate an aspen like you do, say, a sequoia – looking straight up, marveling at its individual majesty and strength. With aspens, you step back and consider them as a whole, as you would a family.
A mile or two up the trail, we paused and looked back toward the lake where we had started. It was far below us, reflecting the sun so brilliantly that you couldn’t look directly at it. But between the lake below and the trail where we stood, all down the mountainside, stood an aspen grove.
The trunks were slender and pale, and the small heart-shaped leaves were new green. When the breeze blew, the leaves quivered and turned, showing their silvery backs. The effect, as the breeze slid through the grove, was that the whole slope of the mountain appeared to be twinkling.
If you could see the sound of tinkling bells, I’m convinced that’s what it would look like.
Populus tremuloides: “quaking” or “trembling” aspen tree.
This is why I love the aspens. Even the slightest whisper of wind sets them quaking. It’s as if they acknowledge that they are tender among the hardwoods. They feel the rippling frailty of their days and shiver with humility.
I understand them. I have seen the brokenness of the world and felt my own helplessness in it. A faint downdraft of sorrow, and I’m shaken. The world is too much for me – more and more often I feel it.
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
I’ve seen some who, when faced with darkness, try to stand like sequoias. They must be strong, I’ve heard them say. They must hold together. They insist they can outlast the curse’s bite even as the wind ravages and strips them bare.
But the aspens shudder and bow. And they seldom do it alone.
Trembling in solitude, an aspen is lovely. But the sight of them in community – the way they twinkle like bells and scatter the sunlight off their backs! How they bend and quiver until the whole mountainside moves!
Gathering together and nodding their assent, they are altogether enchanting.
— — —
My children have learned to weep for loss.
Mighty I am not.
An ending comes for us all.
Let the kindred tremble together.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.
And yet that is not the truest thing.
Amen. Thanks be to God.