catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 12 :: 2014.06.13 — 2014.06.26


Ode to aspens

John Denver was on the radio when I was growing up.  Living in Virginia as a non-skier who’d never been west of Texas, I can’t think of any other reason I would have known Colorado names like Golden, Aspen or Boulder.  With his silky bowl-cut, round wire glasses and guitar, he ushered into my life the idea of “coming home to a place you’ve never been before” and gliding on a “Rocky Mountain high.”

I don’t know when I figured out that aspens were trees and not just an exotic-sounding ski town, but I first saw them on my way to the Telluride Music Festival in my 20s.  One morning on that trip I awoke early in a National Forest campground, watching the light gather and the flirty leaves of the aspens twittering in the breeze.  I was hooked.  I may not have been bold enough to proclaim them as my favorite tree, but I was enchanted. 

A few months later I backpacked in the Grand Canyon.  We started at the less popular North Rim, elevation 8,500 feet.  The night before we began the hike, we stayed in the campground on the rim, nestled under a canopy of aspens.  The next morning we descended step by step, the topography changing as we went from aspen groves to scrubby, sage-green desert plants and sand.  We spent three days camping in the bottom and the last day was a long haul as we made our way up and out to the rim again, where we took pictures of ourselves, dirty and sweaty and accomplished, standing in the shade of the aspens that watched over our departure and return.  By then I’d decided it was my favorite tree.

Last summer we spent a week camping and driving through Colorado in a rental car with XM radio.  I was disappointed we couldn’t find a John Denver station, or at least one playing of “Rocky Mountain High” the entire time we were there.  It seemed like a waste of all those stations and a missed opportunity for the state tourism folks.  I was not disappointed with the aspens.  I looked for them wherever we went, sat beside them at an outdoor cafe table, tried drawing a leaf one morning on the porch of a B&B, and sat on the same porch observing the way the wind catches their leaves and how the leaves move on their stems. 

From across a meadow you can spot aspens, if not by their bright trunks lined up in a glorious stand, then by their collective chorus of hand-raising praise as their perfect little leaves are energized by the slightest trickle of a breeze.  In a gust of wind they seem to be hanging on for dear life.  The fast-moving leaves, with brighter and darker sides, look like a stuttering strobe light.  You don’t have to be on the lookout to notice them because their unexpected movement calls your attention.   

Aspens pull focus.  They get me out of my head.  They delight me and stop me in my tracks.

The closest thing I’ve found to an aspen on the east coast is a birch.  They each have white trunks topped with tufts of leafy branches and the flittering, fluttering dance of the leaves, twirling and waving like they’ve had too much caffeine, and yet they are peaceful.  I look for birches when I visit New York and I’m thankful for them, too.  But they, sir, are no aspens.

Last year at the B&B, I stood right next to the aspen tree shading the porch.  I watched the wind tease the aerodynamic leaves, observed the bend in the stems allowing the movement.  I sat back down and watched the whole mass of leaves moving in all directions at once but somehow seeming coordinated, like a wedge of geese or a school of fish.  I closed my eyes and listened for the brush of leaf to leaf in the patter like rain.  I went back over to the closest tree and smelled it.  Grassy and fresh, like bamboo.   

I sometimes catch myself wishing we had aspens here, but there is something fitting in the way I visit them when I go west.  I stop in to spend time with them like distant relatives.  I go back to see what I remember from the last trip and to notice something I didn’t pick up on before, the way one might return to an alma mater.  These are strange homecomings for a Virginia native but, as John Denver sang, some homes are the ones we have to go out and find.  

In my journal there is a lone aspen leaf, pulled from a tree in the Colorado desert last summer — a fat, teardrop-shaped leaf, ridged along the edges, veins delicate yet prominent, still smelling a little grassy.  When I see it there I understand why people make jewelry resembling aspen leaves, hoping some part of the delightful movement will convey to earlobes.  Like most of our attempts to seize a moment or duplicate nature, it doesn’t work.  But I understand the impulse.

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