Twisted Trunks

My relationship with aspen trees is a bit of a love–hate affair. I love them in the mountains. I hate them in suburban landscapes.

The trees themselves are lovely. The round leaves make the most wonderful noises as they clip and rustle like organic coins colliding in a summer breeze. The airy light that passes through an aspen glade on a summer afternoon feels spiritual, calming, and edifying. I am perpetually fascinated by the flaming display that ignites the mountain landscape in autumn. Vernal emergence of their foliage upon the mountainside is a timestamp for the transitions between winter and summer, with vibrant splotches of light green adding a new hue to the landscape. The winter forests warm my heart with layers of pasty off-white trunks visually staggering the snowpack in vertical bars, contrasted by the black scars of the tree’s growth and development.

Aspen trees flower and can be grown (like most trees) by seed. However, the tree most commonly fills the measure of its creation by sending out a network of sprawling, lateral roots that periodically send up a new vertical shoot, commonly known as a sucker. These suckers eventually establish, become trees in their own right, and send more veins across the earthen carpet, which produce more shoots. Roots and trees grow rapidly, progressively replacing themselves in an unending cycle of decay and regrowth. While this process is fascinating and well adapted to the ecosystem of a mountain hillside, aspen trees do not stay where they are supposed to in a garden landscape. Therein lies the disdain of an aspen ‘forest’ in a suburban setting.

With this fairly unique growth method, there is a solid scientific argument that an aspen forest is not a collective of individual trees but a single living organism. The world’s largest organism by weight is an aspen colony on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau near Fish Lake, Utah, named Pando (Latin for “I spread”). Every tree in this 6000 metric ton, 108-acre aspen grove has identical genetic markers.

While each of the trees in an aspen system may be connected, even genetic clones, the trees will take on unique characteristics from stress or traumatic life events. A regular phenomenon with aspen growth is a trunk deformation called “pistol butting.” Pistol butting can be identified by a ‘J’ trunk shape that is generally close to the ground on a tree, most commonly rooted on sloped ground. The cause is typically soil movement between wet and dry seasonal transitions. Stress is placed upon the tree as the wet hillside pragmatically slides, moving the base off-axis from its prior growth pattern. When the soil hardens, the tree course corrects upward, leaving an increasingly hooked trunk anchored to the hillside.

Snow load, disease, parasites, animal trauma, or extreme weather events can cause other twists and deformities that often heal in curious growth patterns. As I have aged and acquired my own ‘twisted trunk,’ so to speak, I have learned to appreciate how challenging life events have sculpted me into who I am today. I feel proud of my figurative and literal scars as they each represent chapters of my book of life. I look for these anomalies in others and have learned to celebrate the endured life events (self-inflicted or otherwise) that make us individually unique — while still being rooted in the same grove with a common purpose for being. Our history, albeit constructed through imperfection, defines who we are in the present.

The Heber Valley or any ‘community’ could be likened to an aspen colony. We have all chosen to be rooted in the same patch of earth. For that decision to be implemented, a common, binding root system in our core beliefs and expectations connects us all. Something here made us each say, “This is the place.” These common roots transcend various soil types; some soil is inherently moist, and some sit on an incline, a meadow, or stretch on a dryer plateau — nevertheless, the roots are still connected, as we are at our cores.

With regard to individual trees: the venerable and time-distressed present a patina of character, beauty, and wisdom. Not only are the younger trees facilitated by the established, but the forged endurance of the strongly rooted also protect the new growth — both budding and aged playing an essential role in the ongoing life cycle.

I have recently observed increased polarization within the demographics of Heber Valley. My message is unification through tolerance: for both old and new. Since we are all connected by a common root and our literal acreage is limited, it behooves the community from a high-elevation standpoint of well-being to strive for more patience towards your neighbors.

The internationally recognized Vietnamese Buddhist monk, author, poet, teacher, peace advocate, and “father of mindfulness,” Thich Nhat Hanh stated:

“I have noticed that people are dealing too much with the negative, with what is wrong… Why not try the other way, to look into the patient and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?”

Negative thoughts and actions are traps that snare its users into a downward spiral of mental turmoil and sickness of the heart. Perpetual cynicism and criticism (while facilitating temporary feelings of intellectual or moral superiority) are societally prevalent gateways to this downward spiral. The only plausible end to the slippery path of negativity is a broken heart and mind.

I challenge the Heber Valley to choose that standout thing you cannot tolerate about the status quo, patiently and empathetically analyze it and the people behind it, and find something positive about its reality. Whether it is a road, an entity, a building, a group of buildings, the guy that bought the building, the guy that lives next to the building you bought, the guy that built the building, permitted the building, assessed the building, the guy that looks different, drives a different car, has different priorities, different beliefs, thinks differently, speaks differently, eats differently, spends time or resources differently: there is a common root in all of us, and a positive angle to unearth if you have the intellect, humility, courage, and patience to touch it and make it bloom. The next (and more formidable) challenge is to reach out and share that positive message with the person or entity that initiated your grievance. Let’s make the Heber Valley bloom!

Thank you for your ongoing support of Heber Valley Life. It is our contributing readers and sponsors that make this project a reality. I hope you find this compilation of stories uplifting and that you can rejoice in the wonder autumn brings to our quaint mountain valley.

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