Aspen trees are some of the most resilient trees in nature. This is for a couple of different reasons. First, their leaves are extremely aerodynamic, allowing the trees to avoid any major branch damage when the wind blows particularly hard. Their name, “quaking aspen” comes from this trait–the leaves may flutter, but the tree always stands firm. Second, their bark is thick and cold-resistant. In a stubborn show of resilience, the bark continues to grow even after the leaves have dropped and the cold has set in. Lastly, an entire aspen grove originates from a single tree. Aspens have the unusual ability to grow another tree from the roots of the first. This can be both good and bad; it is good because the aspen tree can grow quickly and without seeds, like many deciduous species require. However, it is bad because one aspen tree can quickly take over an entire forest, crowding out hundreds of unique and individual trees.
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I am 12 years old. It’s my oldest brother’s graduation. It’s dark out and far past my bedtime, but Grandpa always has an inkling for an adventure. I guess I inherited that trait from him as I would consider myself an expert explorer. I have successfully mapped every inch of the dirt lot near my home, an impressive feat to accomplish before becoming a certified teenager. Grandpa, my little brother Dunncan, and I set off into the darkness with a lust for the unknown. We mostly just wander around the neighborhood, laughing in awe as Grandpa points at different plants, naming each in its turn. My favorite plant is the Zinnia due to its beautiful layers of petals, beautiful like the deep thinking lines across Grandpa’s forehead.
They represent his 65 years of life like rings in the trunk of a tree. When trees experience trauma like a forest fire or a drought, the rings are smaller and darker, with little space between each one. Yet the trees always recover, leaving a permanent scar of the hardship they endured written in their rings.
Grandpa is a tree, so tall and strong. He always lifts me up with his thick trunks of arms and tells me how much he loves his “butterfly princess.” Like a tree, he can always get through pain, even the pain he endured during his bought with cancer several years back. Smiling at this thought of his strength, we head back before too late, not wanting Mom to make a fuss.
Eight months pass but not without trouble. Grandpa has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer again, but this time it is much worse. He beat cancer before, enduring over a year of chemotherapy and surgeries to remove the miasmic tumors in his neck. Now he is lying in a hospital bed for the 12th visit this month. Sometimes he can’t breathe because the tumors are suffocating him. He can’t take care of Beavus and Butthead, the two cows he adopted to live in the pasture behind his house. We feed them apples and plums from Grandpa’s favorite trees. My favorite tree, however, is in the backyard. It is a huge, sprawling weeping willow with branches that seemed to touch the sky before bending down to tickle the earth. Grandpa had started to build a treehouse in the thick branches of the tree, but the project was never completed. He had plans this summer to renovate it for his grandchildren to play in. For now it would just have to stay perched in the bends of the trunk, its graying wood creaking in the wind. Usually the willow has gorgeous flower buds lining the fragile branches, but it is still winter and the branches are bare except for a light dusting of snow. Remembering where I am, I snap back to the droning of the elderly doctor. Grandpa has stage III cancer. It isn’t impossible to beat, but the chances of it happening are very slim. It isn’t impossible to beat. It isn’t impossible to beat.
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Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. The bass drum continues to make the same repetitive rhythm as I stare out the window of my family’s SUV. This Beach Boys song has been playing on repeat for the past twenty minutes at Dunncan’s request, making the journey from our house in Wyoming to Grandpa’s house in Utah feel even longer. I finally give in, listening carefully to the lyrics of the song:
“Feel the wind burn through my skin
The pain, the air is killing me
For years my limbs stretched to the sky
A nest for birds to sit and sing
But now my branches suffer
And my leaves don’t bear the glow
They did so long ago
One day I was full of life
My sap was rich and I was strong
From seed to tree I grew so tall
Through wind and rain I could not fall
But now my branches suffer
And my leaves don’t offer
Poetry to men of song.”
* * *
When a forest is burned down, it is tragic for the wildlife within. Birds, deer, squirrels, and other residents flee to a neighboring ecosystem like refugees in the night. The once enchanting forest, full of life and peace, is reduced to a black, smoldering field. It is devastating. Grandpa looks much like a sapling now. He is weak and frail, unable to care for himself, nearly unable to talk. His days of adventuring are over. He no longer lifts me up with his stick-turned-trunks. He cannot express how much he loves his “princess butterfly.” The aspen trees have won the fight, desolating an entire woodland, growing and quaking until they owned the monopoly of the thicket. This time he did not survive the trauma of a wildfire; his rings have stopped accumulating. I look down on the deep zinnia lines across his face, counting and memorizing each contour like a dot-to-dot. I recount the events of his life written in his face. I replay the tragedies that gave him his wrinkled complexion.
I am the weeping willow. My treehouse is vacant and broken with the loss of the one who built it. The boards are graying and bowing, becoming weaker with every season. My hair reaches down like branches to graze his white shirt. Tears fall from my cheeks like flower petals in the fall, building a bouquet of wet patches on the funeral dressing. I lay a small peach tree branch across his chest. It was clipped from a tree that Grandpa helped plant many summers ago. Its buds protruded, interrupting the smooth bark of the young tree.
Wildfires are devastating for forests and the wildlife that resides within. But, the death of a forest does not mean the field will be barren forever. The heat from wildfires allows trees to release seeds into the soil, seeds that cannot be seen among the layers of nutrient-rich ashes. These microscopic seeds of hope are nourished by the destruction of their ancestors and eventually grow into a vast forest. Each tree that dies can give birth to dozens of strong, rooted saplings, who grow into thick, vaulting trees. The devastation of an event like this will last for a while, but a new forest will always grow back stronger to honor it.
Heidi Zoeller is the eldest daughter of Les Young. She is married to James Zoeller and is pictured with her children (first picture left to right) Dani, Matt, Dunncan and (second picture left to right) Dunncan, Collin, Dani.
Michelle Kreczkowski is the second eldest daughter of Les Young pictured with with her husband John Kreczkowski.
Jared Young is the eldest son of Les Young, married to Tami Young (pictured). Kids left to right: Braxton, Brayden, Bryson.
Aaron Young is the youngest son of Les Young. He is pictured on the left with his wife, Lori Young. His children are Dylan (center) and Sharme (right).
Sunee Young is the third daughter of Les Young, pictured with her son, Zander.
Wyndi Young is the youngest daughter of Les Young. She is pictured with children (left to right): Jacobi, Myloh, Ele.