Friday, October 8, 2010

Autumn 3. The forest

Figure 3. A Forest path. Photo by TP.
            A cool crisp Autumn afternoon led me to visit one of the forests in my favourite park.  Surrounded by trees, there is no horizon, no sense of city; the air is still and little sun shine warms the ground.  Lying on my back, I can see the yellow leaves of the trees that make the forest wave gently back and forth in the canopy.  The wind is capricious; the leaves wave in response, glittering in the sun against the deep blue sky.  I lie in a golden cradle of leaves and light. Peace.
            Listening to the waving of the leaves, I remember that these trees have been named Populus tremuloides, loosely translated as Trembling Aspen.  The first name tells me of all its relatives around the globe, including our own Populus balsamea, Balsam Poplar of mountain and the great boreal forest, and Populus deltoides, the Cottonwood of prairie river valleys. 
Figure 4. Aspen trees in the Forest. Photo by TP.
The second name, tremuloides, tells me that the man who named the trees of my forest thought that they were much like another tree he was familiar with, Populus tremula, which clothes the northern European lands.  The ending “oides” means like, or similar to.  A scientist, I know, would look at the details of structure in naming this tree; bark, leaves, and flowers speak of similarity which would be honoured in the name.  Likely, someone brought him a bit of tree from the wilds of Canada.  Perhaps he found the tree himself during an expedition to the great lone land.  However he got the bits, he saw similarity to the tree of Europe and captured that in the name of Trembling Aspen.
The romantic in me would think otherwise.  Lying in my forest, imagination leads me to see him lying in a similar forest so long ago, watching the leaves trembling against blue sky.  I would have him hear the gentle rustling as leaves wave in wind, and know the essence of Aspen trembling.
In Autumn, my Aspens prepare for winter.  Leaves cease to function, turn yellow, still trembling in the breeze.  My forest, however, does not go golden all at once.  A patch of Aspen here turns colour in early September, yet another patch chooses to wait until late in the month.  Here Aspen is teaching about Aspen. 
I wonder why this forest prepares for winter in patches, and I think about the
chemistry of leaves and how light triggers Autumn.  Lowering light levels, as day length shortens, cause changes in leaves, and these changes are the response of the tree’s genetics to the environment of the tree.  A patch of the forest changing in unison betrays common genetics; the response is shared between tree and tree.  Now I am led to question what a tree is; where a tree stops and another tree begins.  I remember roots.
            What I know as tree is anchored to the ground by root.  How extensive the root varies with the species of tree, and I cannot know the extent of Aspen root.  Root connects tree to ground and root connects tree to tree, creating an invisible underground link between what I know as tree and what I think is another tree.  Aspen knows each tree is part of a greater whole; an individual Aspen has many trees.  An individual Aspen, sometimes called a clone, changes colour all at once and all the trees of the clone show the change because they share the same genetic response.  The patchy response of my forest to low light in the fall tells me that what I have been taught is a tree is not accurate where Aspen is concerned.  Aspen has taught about Aspen, and I cannot see the trees in the forest in the same way as before.

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