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October 05, 2005

The Natural History of Western Trees

"Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them."

So read the note White House aide Scooter Libby sent Judith Miller, allegedly releasing her from her agreement to keep their conversations confidential.

In an apparent change in communications policy for the Bush administration, the note's description of aspen physiology and phenology is more or less scientifically accurate. But not as accurate as it could have been. Aspen grow in large stands that grow in old wildfire scars. The trees, members of the genus Populus in the willow family, do not reproduce enthusiastically from seed. A burn will be blanketed with tiny, cotton-covered aspen seeds, and perhaps one or five or a dozen will sprout. Those trees will grow, if it sprouts in moist soil far away from hungry elk, and will then send out subterranean shoots that emerge as new tree trunks. Those new trunks send out new lateral shoots, which become new trunks, which send out new shoots. A stand of aspen will change color on the same fall day because that whole stand might just be a single organism. Go to the same aspen country where Judith Miller vacations in the fall, and it is as if the old burn scars still bear yellow flames. This reproductive strategy is a good one for the aspen, as the individual trunks are prone to diseases and pests. Though you will often find an aged aspen in a protected spot, as a rule the trees do not live long.

Imposing groups of white-skinned clones that take advantage of disaster, express themselves in unison, are referred to as "quaking," and rot from the inside out? I can't imagine why Libby didn't pursue the metaphor further.

But don't fault the aspens for their superficial resemblance to GOP flacks. They're the keystone of a number of important ecological relationships. Those relationships are threatened. Aspens are in trouble. Fire suppression in the service of the timber industry, grazing, industrial and suburban development, mechanized recreation, and other extractive uses of the Western landscape interfere with the natural cycle of destruction and renewal on which the aspen rely. Throughout the west, aspen groves are being replaced with grasslands, conifer forests, and mini-malls. In a few years, Scooter Libby may well have to come up with a different American landscape metaphor to describe his cronies.

I'm holding out hope that it'll be passenger pigeons.

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 5, 2005 08:14 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

what teh fuck are yo going on a bout...... talk about poitics or talk about trees...... dont talk about them at the same time..... just makes you seem like you cant make up you're mind.....

I mean, huh?

Posted by: Sethster at October 6, 2005 12:28 AM
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whoa, chris, is that really from the scooter's msg to judith? when did the neocons get so cryptic?

and sethster, I mean, huh? you're sloppy. learn to spell or at least take time to edit yourself.

Posted by: peacebug at October 6, 2005 09:32 AM
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Chris, perhaps I am slightly misinformed. I had been under the impression that NO aspens had reproduced from seed, at least in the temperate latitudes of North America, since the retreat of the Pleistocene ice, and that all extant aspen stands in our climatic region are relict clones. I will have to do some further research to verify your discussion. And, either way, I'm pretty sure that disturbance from snow avalanches is one of the primary processes rejuvenating senescent clones, especially in subalpine zones where wildfire is rare.

One of the sort of cool things that the Forest Service does on my forest is attempt to rehabilitate aspen stands that are suffering from conifer encroachment, largely as a consequence of fire suppression. Mechanical treatment is generally prescribed - as a hydrologist, I get to examine the stands' proximity to streams and wetlands, and recommend buffers, equipment limitations and operating periods to allow treatment without damaging aquatic resources. I will be doing some of that assessment this fall during the chlorophyll fade - yay!

Posted by: Fred Levitan at October 6, 2005 10:10 AM
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From what I've read, Fred, aspen sexual reproduuction is rare but it does happen, especially in moister areas.

One source here.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 6, 2005 10:15 AM
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If the purpose of Libby's note was not to arouse suspicion, it failed. Not only does it perk dendrologists' ears, it also evokes fairly standard 18th/19th-century ways of expressing erotic passion through descriptions of landscape. The autumnal mood (was the note even written in autumn? did the code change with the season to retain credibility?) is in keeping with the genre, especially for romances budding later in life. Note the obvious parallels between aspens turning in clusters and the sensory rush of orgasm.

Michael Berube could probably help us out on this one.

;)

Posted by: Jarrett at October 7, 2005 10:23 AM
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