The Little Things

Earth quakies

Most places on this planet experience a distinctive seasonal event that characterizes the heart, the soul, the culture of an area. In the Far North, it occurs when the spring thaw frees the land of snow and ice. In Japan, it happens when the cherry trees blossom. In baseball cities, it takes place on opening day; in tourist towns at the beginning of tourist season; in farmland during the harvest; and in ski country when the first snowflakes fly.

Here in the southern Rockies we have our own special period that defines our neck of the woods, our way of life, maybe even for some of us the main reason for being here. It arrives each and every autumn, along about late September, like an annual good luck charm from the gods. For this is when the aspen turn color.

Coming to Southwest Colorado at 17 from Nebraska, I felt like an astronaut encountering a previously unknown world. Indeed, there was a brand-new smorgasbord of delights for me to discover, including the extraordinary plant the locals affectionately call the “quakie.” During my first fall in the mountains, I watched in awe as the sprawling groves of aspen slowly changed from a delicious lime green to a dazzling yellow, even orange and red in spots. It was all so stunningly beautiful that I found it physically impossible to stay indoors on the perfect bluebird afternoons of September and October.

Since that initial autumn in the San Juans, most of my life has been spent either among the quakies or within a half-hour drive. My most anticipated time of year is always late summer into early fall, that quintessential state of grace when the aspens put on a show more befitting heaven than earth. There are favorite hillsides, valleys, and even individual groves that must be visited, including one near my home that predictably exhibits a shocking shade of hot pink.

I once left Colorado for five years to take care of family. Being 600 miles from the nearest mountains sorely tested my sanity, especially during the fall. You see, while I missed camping and climbing and skiing the backcountry, perhaps what bothered me more than anything was not being able to observe the day-by-day metamorphosis of the aspen from green to autumn gold. Like magic, like alchemy, like a Polaroid gradually developing, like a gorgeous nature goddess gracefully changing garments right before my mortal eyes.


Yes, the “quaking aspen” (Latin name Populus tremuloides) is a pretty remarkable tree. They are one of the earliest forms of life to emerge following a forest fire, transforming the charred black landscape into creamy white bark and velvet green leaves within a few years. This rapid propagation is due to two unusual abilities.

First, each aspen is not an individual specimen, but rather a clone of its neighbors. And each grove is actually just one plant, its roots spreading underground like a secret subterranean network. Saplings pop up here, there and everywhere, reaching for the sky like spring weeds until there is no room for more.

Secondly, the quirky, quivering quakie possesses a knack for accelerated growth. Unlike most trees, its leaves are capable of photosynthesis on both sides. With the slightest breath of air, the leaves flip back and forth on their four-sided stems, affording the entire deciduous surface access to the life-giving solar radiance.

There is something almost supernatural about this rare talent. For when the leaves of a quakie quake, they not only benefit themselves but produce a visual display that pleases the human mind. Indeed, Native Americans used to suspend their babies in cradleboards from aspen trees while they were picking berries or collecting firewood, for the constant interplay of sunlight, shadow and movement would keep the papooses entertained and comforted for hours.

Quakies are amusing to the ears as well. When the wind blows, they emit a veritable symphony of soothing sounds. At times it reminds me of a softly crackling campfire, stream tinkling over stones, ocean waves foaming on the beach, the whisper of a long-ago lover, or forest fairies singing.

One of my mentors, Dolores LaChapelle, was particularly fond of aspen. In Sacred Land, Sacred Sex, she wrote about being “imprinted on aspen leaves” at an early age. Much like Indian infants of yore, Dolores was put into a canvas seat by her parents and hung from a steel spring hooked onto a tree limb. Thereafter, she was always attracted to quakies. In fact, the first place she moved to after finishing college was Aspen.

In later years, Dolores would advise people to “go to the mountains” come autumn. Because if you are lucky enough to live near aspen country, you should experience the very finest that nature has to offer, which in her charmed corner of the world was when the changing colors signaled the closing of summer and imminent arrival of winter. For there are few things more enlightening than a leisurely stroll on the sun-dappled floor of an aspen wood while bright yellow leaves cascade all around.

In essence, Dolores believed that we marvelously gifted human beings should spend our short lives enjoying the splendors of the real, original, created world rather than wasting our precious time on electronic toys and the unreal, virtual, invented realm. Because we are only given so many – rather, so few – chances to embrace this incredible planet.

There is an age-old belief (found in several early religions) that paradise, or nirvana, or heaven is actually here on Earth, or at least available through various means. I am reminded of this whenever I witness a waterfall in the desert, or falling star just as I look up, or field full of sparkling fresh snowflakes, or flock of geese in V-formation, or the reflection of moonlight on lake water. And I am reminded yet again each autumn when I spot the very first flecks of aspen gold materializing like magic beneath the blazing blue Colorado sky.

– Curt Melliger