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The Aspen Stand

A black bear catches our scent, but because we are a long way away with a very large camera lens, can't spot us.

(Continued from last week’s post)

Why take you on this walk of words, you ask, if I’m not even at Pine Butte yet?

Because I want you to get excited to come visit the Rocky Mountain Front with me (and Jeff, several horses and two dogs).  And because I want to show you pictures, to jog your memory, or to show you something new you haven’t seen.

I want you to remember what you thought when you ate breakfast in the Lodge— your eggs to-order and that scone that smelled too good to resist—then we worked it off by hiking all morning.

If you never watched a black bear though my spotting scope, then I want the smudge of your eyebrow pressed against the glass as you see her dig up root bulbs, probably yellow bells and glacier lilies.

If you have, then I want you to disappear from the humming whir of your computer fan and the honk and rumble of traffic outside, and come visit where you can do ear Yoga—yes I said ear Yoga—stretching your hearing out to the soft sounds of nature.

This is me being sentimental, because I am getting excited to head back to Montana. I am listening to the bird songs, and pawing through my flower books and wondering where all that information went. It was in my head, and somewhere— somehow—it dribbled out and I left a trail of natural history knowledge on the ground behind me.

Except the natural history knowledge I that didn’t come from books; the experiences that are more than just a name and a fact. Those stories I tell you have a smell, a taste, a touch…they live in too many spots in my head for me to forget them.

It might take me writing these flimsy words to remember the real reason Soapberry (Shepherida canadensis) is called Soapberry, and the slippery taste on my tongue when I eat one to prove it to you. I’ll make the same pinched face when I try and eat a chokecherry before it’s ripe.

Chokecherry (Prunus virginianus)...the berry that taste great when it's ripe, and makes my toes curl when it's not.

But now I’m distracted, and we haven’t even gone anywhere.

Let’s hike right out behind the Ranch, because going up to North Yeager takes us into a lot of different habitats, and Jeff and I hike it for work and for fun.

And we get to start out in an Aspen stand, and understand that these are the signature trees of the Rocky Mountains for good reason.

They are stunning, and insanely cool.

Here at Pine Butte, we have decided that these hundred or so trees can be divided into two clones. The East Clone reminds me of Mr. Smith from The Matrix movie, making nearly exact copies of himself right down to that ugly wart. Except these are Aspens, so they all have the same genetic information that gives them a strange, somewhat undignified twist in their trunks, but they are still gorgeous.

I rub my hand on the white bark, and it comes away looking Geisha-white. This is how the Aspen keep their photosynthetic bark from sunburn.

You can really see the photosynthetic bark (green chlorophyll) when the aspen are wet.

I know, even the trees have to worry about too much sun damage. So slather on your sunscreen because you just realized you forgot to put it on, or rub some Aspen powder on your face. Either will work, but it’s hard to keep the Aspen powder from blowing off your face as we walk past the other Aspen clone.

This is how we have decided these are two separate clones, by watching them bud-out in spring and change colors in the fall.

The trees, roughly divided by a stretch of grassy field, dress up for spring and dress down for fall in two big blocks. The East block is usually a little quicker than the West block.

But don’t worry; they both get along. They may even be a male clone and a female clone (though I haven’t gotten the nerve to climb up the 40-foot trunks to check their sex in the spring).

A good fall in Rocky Mountain aspen country

But it wouldn’t really matter with Aspen, not in this century, because these clones spread rhizominously.

Yup. That’s a mouthful, and possibly not even a true word. Regardless, Aspens spread with rhizomes, which is a real word derived from the Greek noun rhizoun (to fix firmly) and a derivative of rhiza (root). Aspens spread via their roots, sending them out like giant underground fingers. Every so often, a stem pops out of the soil and an aspen trunk appears.

If you ever have the pleasure, or terror, of witnessing a tremendous windstorm or microburst (more common in Colorado) as it rips through an Aspen stand, you may get to see just how interconnected an entire clone is when the gigantic, shallow root system fails and the trees begin to fall like dominoes.

I’ve seen the aftermath, never the process (thank goodness) of an aspen rhizome clone being ripped from the earth.

Even a dead aspen is a great home. The soft bark is malleable enough for the weak-beak of a red-breasted nuthatch.

More on the amazing aspen next week, and if I stop talking and start walking, we’ll make it to the bear tree.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Harriet Elkington (Gran) #

    Loved this! What wonderful pictures!
    Looking forward to more. Love, Gran

    April 18, 2012
  2. Awesome descriptions

    May 2, 2012

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