A genus of 35 species worldwide, seven of which are native to the Rocky Mountains. Three of which I can see from my favorite outdoor places in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Of these, the one I visit most often is Populus tremuloides, the quaking aspen. Over my head, under my feet, infusing the air with golden light in autumn, shy lime green in spring, its leaves are a study in perpetual motion and joyful sound. It whispers, murmurs, and under a stronger breeze, bursts into garrulous applause.
Populus, the genus whose name means the group, the crowd, the people.
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Ten summers ago, I woke to the drawn shade slapping at my open bedroom window. Outside, a fast-retreating thunderstorm, a soft and dreamy sigh among the aspens. I stepped barefoot onto the back deck and eavesdropped on the trees in intimate conversation with the rain. If there were a way to transform my human skin into chalky aspen bark, for my arms to rise like branches in a gesture of silent praise, I would happily join their dignified congregation. I stood under the dripping eaves, longing to be part of them, for them to be part of me. In the caesura between dawn and sunrise when the world seemed new and malleable, I made believe it was so.
The rain-washed aspens went from dawn gray to apple green as the thunderhead drained into trails of virga. Pale morning light eased across the valley floor, and a breeze combed curtains of pine pollen from the forested slopes above town. The pollen hazed the air like smoke from a distant forest fire—bright as frost, fine as dust, blending with the multitude of aspen seeds floating on their cottony parachutes. I breathed in that wild potpourri and sneezed it out, and for a moment the trees indeed became a part of me. [End Page 105]
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The memory of that summer morning's communion with the aspens follows me along the trail on this restless October afternoon. My destination is another group of aspens—not the ones in my back yard, but their wild cousins—whose trunks stand straight as flagpoles for 20 feet under crowns that kink and corkscrew and pretzel-twist as if grafted onto the wrong stems. Their branches jut like arms akimbo and dip into long, floppy hands like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Aspens with a sense of humor—in their presence I cannot help but smile. The whizzing mountain bikes have kept me off this trail for most of the summer, but the raking autumn light has made me hunger for "my" trees.
Entering the stand is like walking into a familiar shrine. The trunks and overhanging branches enfold me, an airy, intimate nave. They have offered company and contemplative quiet whenever I've needed them—when my father died and my mother went into a nursing home; when, at 50, I found my small achievements profoundly disappointing. Today I step eagerly into their embrace. I have been away from church too long, and I need it again today.
This morning I stopped at a coffee shop where a pair of friends returned my greetings with vague, dismissive nods, as if they didn't know me. My heart went leaden and my eyes filled, and I quickly left without trying to say more. The hurt slams into me anew as I walk under the aspens—a grievance that has grown from childhood, repeated nearly every time I make my way into the treacherous world of human society. How can I transform myself? I want to be worthy, wanted, whole.
The aspens cheer me for a little while, but I can't hold back the sudden tears. Angrily I wipe them away. Is there anything more tiresome than self-pity, a skin so thin that a minor and surely unintended snub pierces like a dagger? Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could snap my fingers—zap!—and revise myself into someone else entirely, one who is always cheerful and confident and upon whom the angel of despair has never shat?
I lie face-up on the dry grass and stare into...