Here in Colorado, it is time for the annual Gawking of the Aspen, which is accompanied by the need for heightened awareness that the car in front of you could slam its brakes and/or veer off the road at any sign of golden leaves between 200 and 1,000 yards away (for some reason, it’s important to maintain one’s distance and observe them primarily from the narrow shoulders of heavily traveled roads). The risk of this occurrence triples if the car’s occupants include at least two people over age 40.
According to the surprisingly engrossing book Northwest Trees, the aspen is the most widely distributed tree in North America. Its range extends some 4,000 miles from northern Mexico through the mountain West and across Canada, and spans Alaska to the Atlantic coast. Alas, I could find no data regarding how many people join aspen leaves in a colorful death related to trance-like leaf gapery. I do know that on the way home from a recent hike my better half nearly mowed down about a half-dozen rubberneckers who were attempting to traverse a state highway as if it was suddenly a guarded school crosswalk rather than the 50-mph thoroughfare they just swerved off of to take pictures of leaves from 10 football fields away.
As trees go, aspen are loud. As we ventured into the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness on the blustery second day of autumn, the rustling leaves often evoked crashing, churning surf. I wondered, as we wandered, if the animals and other trees in the forest wished the leaves would hurry up and blow off so they could have some peace, kind of like how I hope most of us feel about the racist, fear-mongering, ethically bankrupt, cartoon tycoon running for president.
Some Native American people of the West dubbed aspen “noisy leaf.” I learn from Northwest Trees that aspen bark contains alkaloids, and that many American Indians used the bark for medicinal purposes, including fever reduction and pain relief.
Most aspen leaves flare from lime green to lemon yellow, and from afar the mountainsides appear to course with gold veins. But bursts of red and orange punctuate the yellow. Aspen grow in self-perpetuating colonies, and a stand of aspen with leaves that transition in like colors at the same time indicates the trees are common clones of a single sapling. The clones in each grove begin their preparations for winter’s colder days and extended darkness on a shared genetic schedule. It’s sort of arboreal inbreeding (does that make it less beautiful?).
Aspen, of course, aren’t limited to North America, though I’m unsure if citizens of other nations have to endure breathless TV news breakdowns about when and where the color changes will occur, including meteorological prognostications of the precise days during which colors will “peak” by people who can’t provide an accurate weather forecast outside of a two-hour window despite all the high-tech gear they’re hauling around to scenic locales in their gas-guzzling “mobile weather labs,” which is one of the most ridiculous local TV “journalism” trends in recent memory.
Despite their ubiquitousness and annual spectacle, aspen get little love in literature, and poets seem inclined toward the birch. Literary references generally allude to the sound of their leaves, though in Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey notes the graffiti-enhancing properties of aspen’s pale skin when he rhapsodizes, “Late in August the lure of the mountains becomes irresistible. Seared by the everlasting sunfire, I want to see running water again, embrace a pine tree, cut my initials in the bark of an aspen…”
But aspen are catnip to painters and photographers, professional and amateur alike. Of course, fully realizing the natural splendor of the aspen depends on the equipment at hand. The pros use a turn signal.