Portrait of a Tree
by Carolina Bello
From a spiritual and historical perspective, this intimate multimedia portrait explores the world's heaviest organism: populus tremuloides.
In the temperate forests of the northern hemisphere of the planet, lives a being that trembles and whispers, and that presumes to be the largest organism of them all…
The Ute tribe, who once dominated the rocky mountains of Colorado, believed it brought protection, knowledge, medicine and communication. They made sure that, outside their houses, one of them was always there to keep them safe from bad spirits; and if pain or discomfort were to befall them, there it was to alleviate and heal them. On its skin, they would leave messages, mark roads, tell stories; and with its light and malleable flesh, they made arrows and rafts.
Celts too considered it sacred. They associated it with language and communication with other worlds: its movement announced whenever a spirit was around and, in the form of whisper, transmitted its messages. Later, it is said that its powers were considered a threat by christians, who accused it of being the cross where Christ had died and condemned it forever to tremble with fear, even when there was no wind. It was thus baptized as the trembling tree (populus tremuloides), better known as Alamo or Aspen.
Their leaves shake subtly even in the minimum presence of wind, emitting a sound that gives them that personality which has stimulated the imagination of several cultures. Their trunk, on the other hand, has been canvas and notebook for indians, travelers, explorers and even some couples who decided their love must be fixed in history. Out of its bark pours a liquid that is medicine and nourishment, much coveted during the hardship of winter by bears, deer and marmots, who with their teeth and claws also leave deep traces when extracting it. The enigmatic eyes that stand out in their white bark are nothing more than old branches that didn’t tolerate life on this earth or that some ray decided to amputate; and that are part of all those scars that make each tree unique and irrepetible, despite genetics telling otherwise.
On the surface they appear to be individual beings, but underneath the soil they are all interconnected as if they were one big family: sons and daughters of the same mother that were born identical and that form a single organism. This faculty makes them live thousands of years. In Utah, the famous PANDO survives. It is the biggest organism of the world (by mass): a colony of more than 47.000 alamo clones that weighs around 6.500 tons, and that is believed to have more that 80.000 years. This form of life as a colony or collective, makes them extremely resilient beings, capable of surviving any disaster: there will always be a sprout that survives and that will be able to reproduce until it forms its own forest.
Beyond their success as organism, the Trembling Aspen is also history and spirit. Its purpose in the universe has transcended biology, and not in vain, have humans given it qualities, powers and meanings, that, despite science not being able or willing to explain them –given they are not measurable or classifiable– are just as important to grasp these beings in their totality. In the end, we are all made of the same matter, so, why believe that humans are the only ones capable of developing a spirit? As philosopher and naturalist Alexander Skutch once said:
“If we had instruments to detect the spirit, as sensitive as those used by scientists to measure physical quantities, we might find that sensibility is found as widely spread through the universe as matter”
The faculty to reimagine and appreciate other beings in their totality reflects a relationship of respect and deep connection with them, which in the end may be the reason why we are in this universe: to live in harmony, like the Aspen trees, or go extinct.
Life Ascending (1985) by Alexander Skutch
Ethnography of the Northern Utes (1974) by Anne Milne Smith
Celtic Tree Magic: Ogham Lore and Druid Mysteries (2014) by Danu Forest
US Forest Service
Fotografías y Video
2019. Aspen, Colorado
Published in July, 2020
Volumen 2 , Issue 7