Recently I posted that organisms which depend on fire can often live a very long time, using the example of the giant sequoia, whose seed cones actually require fire to open. Giant sequoias are the largest trees in the world, but are by no means the oldest. That honor belongs to the Bristlecone Pines of California, the oldest of which (before it was cut down) was at least 4,862 years old. If that number is right, it sprouted in 2927 B.C., during the first dynasty of Egypt. It is far older than monotheistic religion, which makes it older than belief in God.
But “Prometheus,” as the tree was called, was only the longest-living individual tree. Many trees survive much longer as clonal colonies or ramets, a group of genetically identical individuals connected by a common set of roots. Even if the trunks burn down, the roots can survive to send up new trunks. And this is how the quaking aspen uses fire to cheat death for millenia.
When you see a stand of quaking aspen, it is usually only one individual: a forest of itself. The tree depends on periodic fires to clear the forest of the evergreens that would smother it with deadly shade. When its trunks burn away, the communal roots quickly send up new trunks, and gain some ground before the spruce and firs can regain themselves. But although the aspen loves sunlight, too much of it would fry its delicate photosynthetic circuitry. So it quakes. Each leaf has a thin, flat stem that makes it quiver with the slightest breeze, throwing off some of its heat and facing it, for a nanosecond, into the shade. It is like the aspen has ten thousand eyes all looking directly into the sun, but blinking rapidly, seeing the world as half light and half darkness simultaneously.
The strategy works: Be many of yourself. Be burned alive. Grow back quickly from your mother root. Push back what shades you. Quake so you don’t die in the full splendor of the sun. The strategy works so well that some individuals have grown ancient with the technique. Meet Pando:
Pando is a single male quaking aspen in Utah. Pando is beautiful. His name is Latin for “I Spread,” which is fitting, as he covers approximately 107 acres and has about 47,000 trunks. His root system alone, at an estimated 6,615 tons, makes him the heaviest organism on Earth. And though his trunks burn to the ground, on average, every 130 years, Pando himself is estimated to be much older.
Pando is about 80,000 years old.
That’s roughly the same time Homo sapiens first ventured out of Africa. It is 70,000 years before the cultivation of crops, or the human discovery of America. If Pando burns every 130 years, that means his above-ground body has been destroyed perhaps 615 times. And 80,000 is the conservative estimate of his age; other botanists believe he could be as old as a million. No joke.
I am not the world’s most spiritual man. I’ve been called a mystic, but I don’t know. I use the word “soul,” but I don’t know what a soul really is, or if it exists. But if the soul exists, I’d like to think of it as an aspen tree. If there is finite matter in the world, which keeps recombining as stars and turtles and cosmic dust and orchids and Gabrielle Boulianes, it seems to me there is a mother root beneath the surface of known reality. There is no forest; only stems of a common rhizome. We are not alone; we are not even “we.” The fires sweep through and burn us away, but the root survives, it spreads, it sends up new growth with new names and bodies in the ash, new armies and congregations and gatherings of friends. It turns its billion eyes to the sun. It trembles.