Willoughby: Trees have slowly invaded Aspen, and that’s a good thing
Legends & Legacies
A 2019 study concluded that trees are one of the most cost-effective ways to combat climate change. The researchers estimate a trillion trees are needed on Earth, in addition to the current 3 trillion. Aspen has contributed to that total. Anyone who remembers the town from decades ago would appreciate how much trees have changed the landscape. Trees have colored the sights throughout the city limits and beyond, into the surrounding area.
To commemorate its 50th anniversary season, the Aspen Music Festival published a book, A Tent In A Meadow. Meadow was an overstatement. The first and second tents occupied a treeless, sagebrush-covered area. The environs bore little resemblance to the Eden we enjoy now, the festival’s 70th year.
When I worked for the festival in 1967, I maintained a lawn that surrounded the Bayer Tent. The sound of the Rain Bird irrigation system distracted the musicians, so my cousin Ralph Johnson and I manually juggled irrigation between rehearsals. That same summer Henry Petersen planted a small grove of aspens within the lawn area. Henry Aspen Seed earned his nickname for the number of local trees he had planted. To supplement the drizzle from the Rain Birds, we hand watered the saplings.
Aspens that had been planted years before lined the path to the tent. An irrigation system built during the 1880s to water cottonwood trees still runs through town. The water crosses the festival parking lot, follows the entrance path, heads toward the west side of the tent, and then flows onto Aspen Institute property. We regularly played irrigator with that water and blocked side ditches so thirsty trees could thrive. Petersen planted even more trees along the path.
The festival tradition of lawn seating accommodated attendees who preferred picnicking outdoors to baking under the canvas tent. The number of outside concertgoers equaled the total inside listeners. Although the tiny trees offered no shade, you could simultaneously listen to music and gaze at Aspen Mountain.
Today those trees, and more planted subsequently, tower over the site. Rather than hike toward a tent in a meadow, we approach a musical sanctuary through a forest. The largest trees stand closest to the small stream. One tree with leaves that tremble over the top of the souvenir kiosk has grown from a 7-foot sapling. Its 3-inch diameter trunk expanded to more than a foot across.
Outside Aspen, a trip up Castle Creek Road reveals trees that contrast in number and size compared to decades ago. Currently much of the trip to Ashcroft passes along a road so thickly lined with trees that you cannot see beyond them. Decades ago, you could see hundreds of yards inland from the road, watch the river’s riffles and gaze up the valley at distant peaks. Like at the tent, those roadside tree diameters have grown much thicker. Tree heights extend beyond what had seemed possible, in former times, for aspens.
Why have Aspen’s trees grown so much in so little time? During the Depression, locals needed free firewood to heat their homes. Roads like Castle Creek enabled them to cut trees close to easy loading on their trucks. The locals survived, but they denuded the roadsides. Eighty years later, with less competition, the trees keep growing.
Decades ago, meadow embraced Ashcroft. You could see the buildings from where Taylor Pass Road crosses Castle Creek. As you drove along Castle Creek Road, the ghost town remained visible from the time you reached the former Elk Mountain Lodge until after you passed it. Now groves of trees interlace, and at times obscure, that view. To see landscapes that have not grown taller, leafier and more golden, you would have to climb above timberline.
The legacy of our namesake tree invites Aspen to continue to contribute to the trillion-tree challenge.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.