In west-central Utah exists one of the oldest living organisms on earth; an aspen grove covering 106 acres in the Fishlake National Forest. Estimated to be at least 80,000 years old, it is named Pando Forest, Latin for I spread. Visiting this forest has been something high on my list, but you really have to want to go there because it’s a bit out of the way. A chance really never presented itself until a few weeks ago as we traveled from Bryce Canyon NP to Lake City, Colorado.
As I expected, there wasn’t much to do there; I figured it was more of an idea than anything. How could one expect to comprehend an organism 106 acres large and 80,000 years old? You can’t really see 106 acres, especially if you’re on the ground in the middle of a bunch of trees, and conceptually what does 80,000 years old really mean? I have no context for it. I just wanted to be in it for a while, and so I was.
The forest survives because of the way aspen trees reproduce. Though able to produce seeds, the regions in which aspens grow have a very short season for germination, so when conditions are not good for seed reproduction, aspens send shoots up from their root system. Since these shoots come from the same root system, the trees that grow from the root are genetically the same. This is why the Pando Forest is so big, considered a single organism, and has lasted so long. Even when fires decimate a section of forest, the roots underground survive and begin sending up new shoots to repopulate.
Kirsten and I drove to a place where we could pull off the road, got out, and walked up into the woods. We didn’t go far, maybe 30 to 50 yards.
The forest was comprised of large rocks that looked volcanic in nature, a number of low lying junipers, the occasional spruce, and a whole lot of aspens. Since there weren’t any hiking trails and I wasn’t prepared for a long hike anyhow, I found a nice rock to sit among the trees and enjoyed the moment.
Closing my eyes on occasion, I listened to the wind rustle the leaves sounding like ocean waves coming to shore, some stronger, some weaker, and heavily present in the woods were the songs of birds, all which made it easy to forgive the occasional sound of a vehicle passing by. With clear blue mountain sky and warm morning sun, all around were the white trunks of the aspen, like cathedral pillars, a kind of secluded sanctuary here in the mountains. Had I the time, I would have loved to simply lay on my back and watch the leaves twist and turn on the towering limbs above.
I eventually got back up, walked to the car and we left. We noticed there were no signs indicating the Pando Forest; only that there was a fenced off area with a sign that said “Aspen Regeneration Area.” I read these areas allow the aspens to grow as deer sometimes take a toll on the young shoots. I assume the lack of signage is because the United State Forestry Division doesn’t want people to know where the Pando Forest is located because some people like to destroy such things. It is no surprise the location of the oldest tree in the world is a heavily guarded secret.
I wanted to see Pando because I wanted to connect with something really old and see what it might feel like to be a part of another organism. I thought I was somewhat like a flea on a rabbit. Does the flea know he is on a rabbit though? Again, Pando is more of an idea than observed reality. I guess you could argue that we interact on a daily basis with something really old – the earth. But nonetheless, it was a really special experience, if for nothing more being so completely surrounded by the beautiful white trunks and spinning leaves of the aspens.