Paul Andersen: The magnificent aspen clone metaphor

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

It is known as the “trembling giant,” an ancient and magnificent life form in south central Utah. More commonly known as Pando, this vast grove of aspens may be the single largest living organism on the planet.

Pando, the trembling giant, is made up of aspen trees that form an enormous clone in Utah’s Fish Lake Mountains. The trees that make up Pando have close cousins here in Aspen, which of course is named for aspen trees that proliferate in our mountains.

Aspen is the tree with eyes. Aspen is the tree whose chlorophyll bark provides winter feed for elk and deer and provides photosynthesis when the leaves have fallen. Aspen is the tree whose leaves quake and flutter in the slightest breeze and spread a confetti spectacle in autumn. Aspen is the tree of the mountains whose white bark stands stark against summer greenery and whose shadows stretch tall across the winter snowpack.

When I guide hikes for the Aspen Institute and Huts For Vets, I speak reverently of Pando as a metaphor for humanity. While aspens appear to grow as individual trees, certain stands are linked underground by a connective root system to a common “mother tree.”

And so it is with us. All human beings are linked by a common root system grounded in the essence and origins of life. I felt this poignantly on a bike tour across Israel eight years ago while pedaling down the West Bank of the Jordan River.

The Jordan Valley is an extension of the Great Rift Valley coming out of Africa to the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East where our common ancestral foundation was formed. While riding through this rift, my friend, Graeme, and I gazed up at the caves in the cliffs of the canyon walls.

“My ancestors may have weathered a storm in one of these caves,” I ventured to Graeme. Then it dawned on me. No, not only my ancestors, but the ancestors of us all might have sheltered in these caves as they ventured out to populate earth from the same fount of life in Africa.

If we are so linked, then why all the fighting? Why all the acrimony? Why all the divisions? The clones of Pando, the trembling giant, don’t fight among themselves. So, why does man?

William Wordsworth put it like this: “From her fair works did nature link the human soul that through me ran/And much it grieves my heart to think what man has made of man …” Man not only wars against himself; he wars against much of the living world.

The current issue of Aspen Idea Magazine, from the Aspen Institute, features an article about Pando. In “The Giving Tree,” Paul C. Rogers, Institute partner and ecologist, warns of a massive assault on planetary biodiversity, with Pando as an example.

Rogers and other scientists have determined that Pando may be dying. “Human decision-making … is a catastrophe of mismanagement by wildlife, forest, recreation and ranching” that has left Pando “foundering.” Rogers calls for an “essential, principled, unique” approach to creating “a lasting, ecologically-driven world.”

Today, the 14,000-year-old Pando and its 12,427 miles of interconnected roots is “breaking up,” says Rogers. Here is yet more evidence of the sorrowful legacy of human conduct in the face of things too large and too complex for us to understand or appreciate. Yet, we hubristically “manage” nature to satisfy us in the short term.

Rogers, director of the Western Aspen Alliance at Utah State University, is adding an ethical dimension to a natural organism estimated to weigh 13 million pounds, “a tree equal to the mass of 40 blue whales.”

Large bodies, explains Rogers, can grow from a single seed. A metaphorical seed also can evolve into big ideas — like conservation of the biosphere and awareness of the fragility of species with which we share the earth.

Wordsworth’s poetic soliloquy begs the eternal question: What has man made of man? It all comes to choice and the values that drive our choosing. Pando is the largest living metaphor we know. It solicits our love and caring as a necessity, calling on us to act as stewards.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at