Listening to Aspen

On a recent fall trip to the Eastern Sierras, I reveled in a week of hiking among the aspen. Lining the trail, the trees formed an outdoor cathedral, resplendent with golden, orange, and lime light, vibrant as stained glass. White trunks led my eyes upwards to a cerulean dome. As on other trips in other times and other seasons, I felt in the presence of Spirit among these "Quaking aspen."

The leaves, like small, round Japanese fans, flickered and radiated yellow light. Looking toward the sun, I saw the colors intensify; with the sun at my back, the leaves paled by comparison, suddenly dull and wan. Like the leaves, I need the Light shining through me in order to be at my best.

The Latin name for aspen is populus tremuloides. Aspen tremble, shake, and quiver with the slightest breeze, not unlike the way I feel when Spirit moves through me. French trappers believed that the cross Jesus was crucified on was made from aspen wood and that is why the trees still tremble. They also sensed God in the presence of these trees.

Scientists explain the movement of aspen leaves this way: their long, flattened stems attach perpendicular to the leaf, unlike stems on most deciduous leaves. The angle enhances their fluttering and enables them to respond to a barely discernable breeze. What is it about me that allows me to be moved? Is my stem my faith? The particular turning of my soul, my readiness to hear God’s call if I am still enough to listen?

Aspen trees thrive in abundant light.

A hardy breed, they live from sea level to up to 11,500 feet. After forest fires, aspen trees regenerate quickly in the burned areas. Their underground roots spread laterally more than 100 feet, producing suckers that develop into young trees. When my own roots in meeting are broad and deep, when I feel personal caring among us, when my daily practice nourishes me—then I, too, thrive in the Light, even when I am "burned out" by life’s challenges.

In the Eastern Sierra, aspen trees endure six to eight dark months of snow and ice. Young trees bend under the weight of the snow. But they straighten up again, with a curvy detour in their trunks. With God’s love, I also bow through the many seasons of my life. "When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed," the song reminds me. Because aspen trees bend easily, they are not commercially valuable, except to make particleboard and pulp. Their flexibility favors their survival, both in the mountains and also in our human world of diminishing timber resources.

Aspens play their role in God’s world. Deer, elk, and moose eat the leaves and twigs, birds nest and take cover in branches, and beaver cut aspen trunks for dams. After fall rains, downed leaves turn brown and soggy. The soil under aspen trees is especially rich since the litter decays rapidly, hosting new life in the spring.

The most widely distributed trees in North America, aspen trees have endured some abuse. Hikers and hunters have carved their initials and names in the white bark of the larger trees. Since the 1800s Basque sheepherders have cut their names and their lovers’ names on aspen trees all over the western United States. I saw one tree, its white bark stretched thin around a large trunk, with the message "Jesus Loves" and a cross carved above that. But aspen trees are resilient. Their scars heal with time, the bark becoming gray and thickened over past cuts as the trunk expands. So I, too, experience the miracle of healing with time. The Spirit mends mind, soul, and body in a gradual redemption after brokenness.

Though aspen are resilient, most start deteriorating by age 60, earlier in some stands. But because of their special root reproduction, scientists can trace aspen ancestors in Utah that lived in the Pliocene era, more than 1,000,000 years ago.

On my trip, I took pictures incessantly, trying to capture the brilliance of aspen in canyons and on mountainsides. In a quiet moment on the last day, I realized that I could not catch, freeze, or possess the glory of these trees. I learned to let go, to surrender to God’s will and rhythms. I sat in silence, warming in the late afternoon sun.

As the cold wind blew gold leaves past me, I knew that soon the aspen trees would bare their branches completely, ready to receive the first snows of winter. Mountain chickadees would hop from one gray branch to another to catch the last rays of tepid sun. The sad words from Frost’s poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay" haunted me. I started to feel dejected about life’s ephemeral nature. An inner voice answered, "Find gold in the present."

I will return to the mountains next summer, God willing, when the new green leaves will rattle and tremble in the quiet air. I will be reminded of the presence and mystery of Spirit. In the stillness and the Light, I will listen to the aspen again.

Kathy Barnhart

Kathy Barnhart, a member of Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, Calif., is a marriage and family therapist and a nature enthusiast.