Enjoying the aspens despite what may come


For weeks I've looked forward to a short stay -- working vacation, really - at my tiny cabin in southeastern Utah. September is a brutal, blazing hot month in the Phoenix area, made worse by frequent reminders in the news and elsewhere that nearly every other part of the U.S. is experiencing the beginning of autumn.

So, as I left the city behind me yesterday and began the long drive North and East through mountainous Payson and Heber, Arizona, I began to feel the lift in spirit that comes from a change in elevation and scenery. For a desert dweller like me, the emblem of this ascension is the astonishing aspen, so flamboyant and exotic all summer with its lush, shimmering green canopy and startling white trunk, but even more so in early October, when the leaves transition to neon yellow and orange and demand to be seen even by those speeding by in their cars.

The long drive fosters contemplation, and my thoughts returned to well-publicized, alarming coverage a few

years back about sudden aspen decline, which on the heels of the devastating bark beetle infestations  of Ponderosa and pinyon pines, seemed destined to rob southwesterners of the entire contents of their forests.  To my untrained, unscientific eye, however, the aspens I passed on my journey, both in Arizona and Utah, appeared healthy enough and just as eager to flaunt their riotous coloration as they always are.

I was further comforted, a bit, when a web search today turned up some evidence that last year's decent precipitation may have caused SAD to slow. Research continues, but even these reports agree that climate change is a likely culprit in both these plagues, and one fortuitous year's reprieve may be the exception that proves the rule.

Long-term predictions notwithstanding, I'm thankful for last year's generous rain and snowfall in the higher elevations. Likewise, I'm thankful for an opportunity to visit the backwoods, which, despite beetles, drought, disease, and fire, still provide beauty and respite to locals and stressed-out city dwellers alike. As I stare out at the distant Abajo range, I fancy I can make out the faint, telltale streaks of gold and copper on its flanks, and I raise a glass to any aspens that managed to hang on for one more year.

Essays in the A Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Image courtesy USDA Forest Service, Coconino National Forest.

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