Shiver me timbers, it’s cold out there.
Cold and gray, wet and cloudy.
I was out walking through Center City, weaving my way through the rat race.
The temperature? Just barely above freezing. Even the sunshine seemed frozen.
And the trees? Still dormant. Maybe, if you looked hard enough, you could see the faint hue of spring budding on the tips of their branches but mostly they're just lifeless, gray hunks of wood stuck in the ground.
The brisk cold burned my ears, dried my eyes and stiffened my knees. I braced myself around every corner. It was stark, grim and plain. The wind pushed me against the skyscraper walls and my footsteps made hollow chimes as if the whole world was made of glass.
Sometimes, I think it is.
To keep my mind from numbing, I tried to remember and recite my tree poetry but even that provided no refuge.
All I could remember was the famous line from Shakespeare’s sonnet, the one that describes the bird-less trees as bare ruined choirs, or the Edgar Allan Poe epic that begins: The skies they were ashen and sober, the leaves they were crisped and sere…it was down in the dank tarn of Auber, in the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
That wasn’t going to work.
I could’ve handled the bad weather, maybe, if I wasn’t sharing it with so many other people. They weren’t making it any easier.
The rat race was in full swing that afternoon…people racing from one side of the street to the other, pushing their way out of the buildings, shoving and hollering, weaving in between the jammed up cars…talking about sitcoms and surgeries and lotteries…poking me with their umbrellas, arguing on the cell phone, spilling coffee, begging for money, sneezing in my face and littering.
You ever want to feel lonely?
Then plant yourself in a crowded city street.
Maybe it was the weather, these last days of winter gloom, but it seemed like all those people…the whole wretched hive…were just buzzing around for one reason and one reason only: to get in my way.
Don’t worry. I pushed right back.
That’s called the nature of the beast, baby.
When I finally couldn’t take it anymore, I looked for the nearest exit.
I needed a small escape, just needed to break loose from the rat race, just for a little while, so I ducked into the first warm door.
Lucky for me, it was the door to the Academy of Natural Sciences.
Up there on the second floor? That’s as good a place as any to see the world.
I started at the very top.
That’s called the alpine.
That’s the rocky roof of the world. Home to the ram, home to the yak. That’s where the sunshine starts, that's where the wind is born, up there beyond the clouds, where the most common plants are grasses, sedges and moss, the very few trees just scrubby weeds barely breaching the splintered peaks.
There’s no rat race up there on top of the mountain.
Turn around and you’re in the temperate forest biome.
This is a dramatization of one of most important and revolutionary events that can happen in the temperate forest zone, featuring one of the most influential critters in the entire Turtle Island menagerie.
Meet the beaver.
Except for man, no other animal has had more impact on this country.
Chopping trees, building lodges, fording and damming every major river from the Colorado to the Mississippi to the Delaware…and all their tributaries…the beaver is the great designer and landscaper of Turtle Island, responsible for the pond-and-stream environment we typically associate with the temperate forest biome.
So, please, give a little respect and a whole lot of awe to the beaver.
You wouldn't know it to look at him but, here amongst the birch tree, this little buck-toothed critter is a supreme architect, a world-maker.
Look, it didn’t give me any pleasure seeing these great and mighty animals stuffed and preserved under all those artificial lights and behind those thick glass panes.
This isn’t the way I ever imagined meeting my Spirit Keepers.
It’s unfortunate but it’s not my fault.
Do you want to know the saddest part of this whole taxidermical spectacle?
Here it is. There’s nothing special about these particular individual animals except their own bad luck.
Right place, wrong time.
They weren’t seeking out the hunter. They weren’t some place where they didn’t belong. They weren’t looking for this kind of celebrity status.
They were probably just minding their own business…maybe enjoying some respite from their own rat race…lazing about with their own kind under a pitch perfect day out there in, say, the Serengeti and then whammo...
…a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
One thing became all too clear.
No place is safe. Even if you stay put in your own biome, there’s something out there and it’s coming right at you, heading straight in your direction.
There is no retreat, no refuge.
When your number’s up, it doesn’t matter if, yesterday, you were safe and sound, just grazing on the grass…
…or prancing through the chaparral…
…or even hiding in the woods…
…when it’s your turn to go, you go.
That’s called the law of the jungle, baby.
Just across the hallway, I found another scene from the temperate forest biome...
…and stood, face to face, with the most dominant tree in all of Turtle Island.
That’s the quaking aspen, part of the tree family that includes the poplars and the cottonwoods.
This tree has the widest and largest range of any tree on Turtle Island, found all the way east in Newfoundland to all the way west in Alaska, dipping down throughout the entire continent all the way to Mexico, one of the most iconic trees of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain states.
According to the field guides, there should be aspens here in Philadelphia.
I’ve yet to find them.
I thought I saw a few when I was in willow country, over there at the John Heinz Swamp near the airport, but I couldn’t be sure if they were aspens or birches.
To me, they are very similar in appearances and I’m not practiced in the art of telling them apart.
Besides, here in Philly, you’ll never see the aspens the way they’re supposed to be seen.
The way they’re supposed to be experienced.
Do you really want to see some aspens? Then go west.
I hope someday I get the chance.
Unlike birches, aspens reproduce by growing shallow roots parallel to the ground, shooting up trunks every chance it can. They say that entire groves of aspens can reasonably be classified as one living organism.
Miles and miles of trees that are actually just one tree…each tree connected to the same root system, each tree sharing identical DNA, each tree connected to some mother tree hidden somewhere in the giant grove.
But if you really want to see some aspens, then you got to go to Utah.
Located in Fishlake National Park, there is one large grove of quaking aspens that has been scientifically identified as one single living being.
Some say it’s the largest organism on the planet.
I long to see it in person.
Over a hundred acres of those snowy white trunks, miles and miles of those twinkling, coin-shaped leaves…all that splintered sunlight…over 47,000 trunks of the same tree, each tree the genetic twin of the tree next to it and even to the tree miles and miles away.
A forest that is one single tree…the heaviest, most massive organism ever found…also the oldest living thing ever discovered, still going at 80,000 years old.
It is named Pando.
People are always asking me: Hey, Jon Spruce, if you could be a tree, what tree would you be?
I'll be an aspen.
Being an aspen.
Imagine walking miles upon miles, from tundra to desert, the whole time surrounded by members of your own family…nothing but brothers and sisters, mama bears and papa bears.
Imagine a place where everything that blocked your path and everyone that stood in your way…when you really looked into it…they were all made of the same genetic material, cut from the same cloth.
Imagine a place where everyone you meet is part of the same root system, all headed in the same direction.
Do you want to see the Himalayans? Do you want to live with the gorillas?
Want to see the world?
Welcome to the club. Welcome to the rat race.
Down here in the rat race, you can be as smart as you want to be.
You’ll still never figure out which way the cat’s gonna jump.
That’s called street smarts, baby.