Hello again from the Eastern Sierra!
Life has slowed down here lately, as has my field schedule, which means that my last several weeks here in Bishop will be a time for reflection, for ending well with purpose, and for drinking in deeply and slowly all that these mountains have to offer before I leave them. Fall is the perfect season for this process of looking back in appreciation. Its smells, colors, and sensations are unmatched in their richness, and lend themselves well to afternoons spent wandering thoughtfully through trees. However, this is not the space for me to share with you all that is running through my thoughts this autumn. Instead, I’ll try as best I can to give you some sort of a picture of just how beautiful this place is right now. And I’ll throw in a little botany just for fun.
We’re talking fall colors today, and in much of the western part of the country there is one unchallenged star of the show: the quaking aspen. But before I write about these splendid trees, there are some other players I should mention. Most of the areas in which I work are filled with vast expanses of shrubs and perennial grasses, with scarcely a tree to be seen. These habitats undergo changes in autumn that are less striking than the turning of leaves on the trees, but they are beautiful nonetheless. Their display employs a more subtle range of browns and yellows, but in the warm, soft light of fall, these colors give the landscape a wonderful tone.
The showiest of these shrubs are the rabbitbrushes, a group of plants that are viewed by many with mixed feelings. These waist-high shrubs are late-season bloomers, so they have been bursting with bold, bright, yellow flowers this fall after most plants have long since gone to seed. Rabbitbrush are really abundant in many places, so as they flower they create beautiful seas of color on the land. Unfortunately, these plants can become a great annoyance, at least for allergy-sensitive humans. Their release of pollen means a steady diet of itchy eyes and runny noses for people here in Bishop, so that blooming rabbitbrush are sometimes looked upon with disdain. But they still look good.
It might be a tough sell for me to convince you all of this, but tall, perennial grasses also add a wonderful touch of beauty to these landscapes. Now, I won’t try to deceive you with exaggerations about their colors. In the spring and summer, these grasses are green. And in the fall they dry out and turn brown. Nothing special about that. But where they shine is the way they take on a rich warmth in the long afternoon light of autumn. The light passing through their fading leaves produces varying hues of golden, and sometimes reddish, brown. It’s subtle, but it’s lovely. They are tall and abundant, so each grass’ small contribution of color adds to the charming richness of the landscape in fall, especially as they sway in unison to the afternoon breeze.
Well, that’s my attempt at moving you with the subtle beauty of shrublands. But let’s face it, when people talk about the magic of fall colors, they don’t wax poetic about shrubs and grasses, they look to the trees. Well, in the Eastern Sierra, that means aspen. And what a show they put on!
So let’s talk a little bit about quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides). They are the most widely distributed tree in North America, growing all over Canada, down into Mexico, and everywhere in the US except for the southeast. They grow in groves mixed with conifers on the sides of mountains, in dense pockets occurring within otherwise unbroken oceans of sagebrush, and in wet areas along streams. So they are a flexible and highly successful species.
Few trees can match the extravagance of the show put on by quaking aspen in the fall. Their simple, nearly round leaves begin to die and transform as temperatures drop and the first frosts hit in autumn. The leaves break out into dazzling cascades of bright yellow, richer gold, orange, or fiery red. When sunlight reflects off the leaves, their brightness and vibrancy is bold and blinding. When you take in the trees from below, with light filtering through their leaves, they glow with a softer gold that fills and warms everything in their shade. As the leaves fall, the ground itself takes on their yellow hue. Earning the name “quaking aspen”, the leaves spin and twirl on long, thin stalks, so that the groves of stunning colors flutter and shimmer in the wind.
Here in the Sierra’s we get to take in these trees against the backdrop of rugged mountains, clear, blue lakes, and deep, green conifers. The air is clear and crisp, and the colors are bold. The beauty is astounding.
Aspen have some unique, funky characteristics that sometimes produce spectacular results. They reproduce using flowers on catkins, and seeds carried on the wind by fluffy, white fruits like those belonging to cottonwoods. But in my part of the country, they don’t seem to go to seed very often. Instead, they typically reproduce by root sprouts. The roots of a tree will spread out, and then sprout out of the ground, producing a clone. Most stands of aspen are made up of numerous separate patches of clones, but some stands may contain just a single, clonal individual.
One such aspen clone is just about the most extraordinary organism on the planet. In Utah, there is a clonal colony of one individual male aspen, that may be the oldest and the largest single living organism in the world. The clone is named Pando, a Latin word that means “I spread.” Spread it does. According to the Forest Service, the clone covers more than 106 acres, weighs close to 13 million pounds, and has more than 40,000 trunks, all connected by the same genetically identical root system. Figuring out the age of such a plant has to be difficult, and it’s hard to have much confidence in the estimates that different scientists come up with. But those age estimates are spectacular. Some suggest that the plant is 80,000 years old. Some propose an age of 1 million years. I sure don’t know how old it is, but clearly it is an amazing, exceptional plant.
After spending last year down in the Mojave Desert without much of a fall to speak of, seeing all the colors this year is sure doing a lot of good for my soul. I hope you’re enjoying the season and its colors wherever you may be!
Until Next Time,
Bishop BLM Office