Everybody needs a safe place when they are going through hard times, and sometimes safe places don’t look like you think. I was born and spent my childhood in central Alaska, and much of those 12 years could be considered hard times.
And my safe place? Up in a quaking aspen tree, one of the many trees in Alaska, my best friend tree. Even now, when I find myself under stress, I close my eyes and imagine climbing up its silvery trunk.
Trees in Alaska
If you’re surprised to hear that there are quaking aspen in Alaska, you’re not alone. Trees in Alaska’s forests tend to be evergreens, largely spruce trees. In the interior, where I lived, the spruce are stunted from permafrost (year round frozen soil) that prevents deep roots and I grew up thinking that trees never grew above 20 or 30 feet (7-10 m) tall.
But there are also a few deciduous trees in these colds lands, some birch trees, a few quaking aspen. These aspen are the most widely distributed tree species on the continent of North America, their range extending from Alaska to Mexico. They adapt to different climates by growing at lower altitudes in the north and higher altitudes in the south.
Best Friend Tree
My home in Alaska overlooked the wide bed of the Delta River with a clear view to the Alaska Range beyond. It was a magnificent vista, but definitely not a friendly one. The river bed was a mile or more across, a vast expanse of sand, gravel and logs, white as bones, with a little whip of a river winding its way somewhere in the middle. The Alaska Range was a line of jagged mountain peaks covered with snow all year.
Near the cliff leading down to the river bed was one deciduous tree that became my best friend tree. I loved its ivory bark and the catkins that appeared in summer. I didn’t know it at the time but it was a quaking aspen. Unlike the spruce behind and around the house, the aspen was climbable, and climb it I did, carving my name into its bark with a small pocket knife.
In summer, I would tie a small bundle of necessities up there near “my” branch: the book I was reading, a bottle of water, a pocket knife. I could sit there and look out across the river bed to the mountains and dream.
Quaking aspens, I found out much later, are remarkable trees. They are named for their leaves that tremble in every breeze. The bark is pale, a silvery white, and – believe it or not – carries out the process of photosynthesis, usually a task for tree leaves. That means that aspens continue producing energy in winter when other deciduous trees are mostly dormant.
Quaking aspens can reproduce asexually by sending up new stems from a single root structure called a clone. Aboveground, each stem looks to be a single, independent tree, but all the trunks growing from one clone are genetically identical.
This structure makes the tree uniquely long lived. An individual quaking aspen stem can live some 50 years, but the entire clone can live for tens of thousands of years. Little did I know when I clung to my best friend tree’s trunk that it would be around so much longer than I.