Imagine a place, high in the mountains of Central Utah, right at the heart of the Fishlake National Forest where there is a glade of quaking aspens ringing the shore of a cold, deep lake with waters the color of steel, of iron, of granite, an odd comparison for water, the contrast immediately apparent, unyielding mineral colors used to describe the silk soft slip of the shore. Imagine a walk among those aspens in the fall, the wind drifting and shivering through the silver dollar shaped leaves which tremble in a bright gold blaze overhead, stretching over the tops of the mountains in the brisk fall air, and take in the way the sky seems to stretch out above you for miles in all directions, as if you are at the top of the world.
There is a scent to the air on a fall day in those mountains under those trees that I find hard to describe, although it is ingrained into my memory, pine and smoke and leaves falling, which is not a scent itself but makes me think of spices I have never tasted from places I do not know the names to. So imagine it, this place so far from the busy bustle of our lives, where the silence hangs still in the air, imagine the peaceful lake stretching out in front of you, and the glorious trees overhead, imagine the unbearably bright blue of the sky.
Can you see it?
Now let’s focus on the trees. The white bark, scarred with lines and whorls of the deepest, darkest brown. The thousands of trembling, quaking leaves. The color of those leaves, bright lime green in the spring and summer shading to sunbright gold and aged bronze and lively yellow, and even sometimes crimsons and reds in the fall, the birds and nests and nestlings cradled in the branches, the squirrels and chipmunks and shrews that den at the juncture of limbs or among the roots. The way the trees bunch together, never just one or two, or even three, no, aspens grow close, in clumps and clusters, perfect for walking around and through, dry leaves crunching underfoot, ideal for games of tag and hide and seek.
We used to call them deer trees, when I was young and we drove through this forest, under the trees I can remember at age 5 and age 8 and age 12, and I am not sure what the connection was, except that we tended to visit in the fall and make a game out of how many deer we could count as we hiked and walked and drove through the forest, and in our young minds the trees where deer live became deer trees, and that is what we still call them now, my sisters and I, almost 35 years later.
The aspens are everywhere on that mountain top, more than 50,000 trees spread out over 100 acres, the largest group of aspen trees anywhere in the United States, in the world, really. And not just the largest group of aspens, but the largest living thing. Anywhere. It’s almost incomprehensible. Because no matter how closely you look, no matter how vividly you imagine the scene, what you cannot imagine, what you cannot see, is that this grove is one plant, one organism, one living thing that is connected underground by a single large root system, spreading and sprouting and growing one sapling at time through the thick and loamy soil of this forest in a plain at the top of a mountain high above the dry desert air of central Utah.
Consider the symbolism of that for a moment—all those individual trees, different ages, different heights, different colors of leaves, some old and dying, some new and vibrant and full of life, but connected by the same roots sunk deep into the earth, wandering over the top of the mountains in a web like an untraceable map. There is beauty in the way they rely on each other, on the cycle that brings new life out of old roots, that accepts the fallen limbs, the broken trunks, the scars and breaks and burns, and still makes room for every young and tender sapling stretching its way into the light. The same is true for us as well, I think. We are not simply individuals living isolated from one another. We are, instead, an amalgamation of all of our ancestors and those who worked and played and breathed before us—we grow steadfast from the stability of those ancient roots.
I think we could learn a lot from trees. About the ways we are connected to each other. About the ways we need one another. About the ways we each depend on a network of roots and connections and interactions, about the ways our actions, individual though they might be, shiver through every one of us, like a string pulled tight and plucked, vibrations traveling through the air in invisible waves, like the ripples in water after a stone is thrown, expanding outward in concentric waves of influence, like how the leaves of an aspen tremble and shudder in the passing wind, never just one or two, but a whole trees’ worth of leaves moving in a delicate dance, no, not just a tree, but a copse, a glade, a forest, a mountainside, all moving together.
Too often, I think, we spend our time arguing about the ways we are different, the ways we are unique, the ways we can set ourselves apart from others—we emphasize gender and race and culture and religion until that is all we can see, until every interaction feels like a battleground, until we spend so long in despair over the ways we are distinct from one another that we forget to revel in amazement at the ways we are the same. We forget to wonder at the roots which bind us, to bask in the myriad ways we reach out for one another, seeking peace and love and understanding—we forget to marvel at our dependence or interdependence that speaks of unity and harmony and peace.
Too often we stop imagining the possibilities of beauty, the opportunities for collaboration, the richness of our lives if we can learn to embrace in another what we do not find in ourselves.
We forget the raw holiness of need that shakes us, shuddering and shivering into a bright morning with blazing leaves and brisk air where we feel the quake and quiver of the threads and roots that connect us all.
We forget the things we can learn from trees.