October , 2007, 4:36 am
The sun won’t rise for another hour or more, and it is pitch black beneath the trees. My headlamp illuminates only a small circle of steeply rising trail. The world is reduced, constricted by my limited senses. I hear mostly the crunch of my feet as they slide ever so slightly with each step on the small stones that litter the steep path. Above the sound of my footsteps a small stream comes and goes as the path approaches then veers away from the edge of a ravine that I cannot see. The birds have yet to wake in the forest. When I stop, all is still silent except for the sound of my breath and the hushed rustling whispers of the Aspen trees.
An hour later the sky is beginning to talk to the mountains at the head of the larger valley, and the forest is filling itself with the hesitant gloom of dawn. It is a barely lit world still hiding in the early morning shadow of the mountains to the east. I turn off my headlamp when I realize that I can see better without it, and then I watch as the ghostly forms of trees make their way towards me out of the dark. They whisper to the wind and the birds. As I orient myself a strong wind blows and it sounds like a thousand paper birds lifting themselves into the air on a thousand wings of parchment.
I make my way off trail for a place that looks directly down and out the gorge I have been hiking along. It is a tiny ridge that juts out into the gorge. The stream is now hundreds of feet below, it’s mutterings hidden by the morning whispers of the Aspen. The ridge is narrow, rocky and covered in trees barely taller than I can reach – their trunks just large enough to wrap my hands around.
Still hidden behind the 12,000 foot horizon at the end of the valley, the sun is trying to burn its way through the last shreds of low clouds to reach the muted forests around me haloing the clouds in the bright yellows and pinks of a welding flame.
A knife-edge of sunlight cuts across a stand of aspen on the ridge behind me – a thin blade of light thrown out of a sliver of space between the clouds that are rushing by above throwing shards of sunlight into the shadowed dawn on the mountainside. They flash over the trees like the backs of golden fish; brilliant at the surface of a murky river for just a moment, and then gone.
Now I have hiked to the meadow the head of the gorge. The clouds have closed over entirely and the meadow floats above a sea of gold parchment aspen, their rustling butterfly wings muted against the grey sky. There is just myself and the valley, and the aspen are speaking. Closing my eyes I am sitting in a storm of paper butterflies.
When I open my eyes, the clouds break once more and the trees burn a screaming amber against the running dark clouds. A smell of fresh dirt, melting snow and panicky earthworms hits the meadow. Clouds descend below the ridgeline above the meadow and curtains of rain are closing out the distant mountaintops.
Perhaps I should run.
A silent monochrome.
Over the last five years vast stretches of aspen forest have turned into ghosts. The leaves fall, but they never grow back. The suckers that normally sprout into new trees from aspen roots don’t appear. They speckle pine and spruce hillsides like the patches of grey hair that remind us of our mortality. When the spring returns they become forests of everlasting winter, empty trunks stark against the clear mountain skies.
Researchers have named this condition SAD, or Sudden Aspen Decline Syndrome. Mass aspen deaths have been documented throughout the Rocky Mountains with increasing frequency since 2003, and on the drive from New Mexico into southwestern Colorado dozens of patches of bare forest dot the landscape. If you didn’t know about SAD, you might not guess the scope of the problem. When I drove through the southern Colorado’s Animas valley, where the famous Durango-Silverton Railroad runs, the waves of color sweeping back and forth across the valley were astonishing. It didn’t seem like a scene that would make you worry about the future of aspen. On every other bend, campers full of happy tourists were stopping to take pictures of the scenery – holding their cameras out in front of them like they were trying to read the small print on the back of their cameras.
The San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado where the Animas Valley lies has actually been hit hard by SAD. By 2007 these mountains had already lost more than ten percent of their aspen forests. Even the Animas Valley, where everyone was taking pictures, had patches of forest silenced by SAD. In the big picture ten percent is not an insurmountable loss, and it may not be surprising that people don’t notice when this much forest dies off. If one out of every ten of our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues suddenly failed to wake up one day it would shake our world. But the forest is not most people’s world, and so it is easy to drive through the mountains and be completely unaware that ten percent of the forest has not woken from the previous winter.