A Grove of Aspen
By Jennifer Schelter
I never expected to be hiking in the Rockies near Parshall, Colorado with Cheri Helmicki, a real cowgirl and owner of the Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch, with my mother and sisters, when she pointed to a grove of Aspen and said, “Aspen are the largest living organisms on the planet. They share one interconnected root system, and that.”
“Wow. I didn’t know that,” I said, imagining the root ball the size of several city blocks or a football field.
She took a step towards the trunk and pointed to dark slash marks.
“You see those?”
“That’s from deer or moose rubbing the velvet off their antlers, and that.”
To me the marks looked like Zen calligraphy, and healing wounds. I repeated, “And that” to myself memorizing her speech pattern and mouthing it to my sister-in-law, Julia, who smiled and mouthed “and that”. Cheri said “And that” at the end of almost every sentence and I loved it.
As we hiked up the trail, I got thinking about how big the Aspen root ball must be and how Aspen were like my family and the perfect metaphor for humanity.
I thought about my mid-life and how things felt gangly, untethered, uncertain and often dark. I thought about my struggles to re-define my self and career, my parents struggles with hips or knees, my sisters and sister-in-law’s struggles working full time, raising children, caring for dogs, homes, husbands, and careers, my nieces and nephews struggles with becoming teenagers and being kids. As I walked I wanted to reframe these “struggles” not as politically correct language such as “challenges” or “opportunities” but as the gift of our shared humanity, interconnected learning and collaboration.
On the surface, I thought, we looked like “A Lovely Happy” Privileged American Family yet underground we were all working our hardest, suffering at times, all in need of support, compassion and luck. I heard the Aspen leaves in the breeze, like light rain, a rustling flutter. I closed my eyes for a few steps and visualized a root ball, like telephone lines underground, zigzag connecting my extended family from Arizona, to Colorado, to Rochester, Florida, England, France, Iraq, California, Oregon, Boston, Cape Cod, Maine, NYC, and Philadelphia. Roots that included my extended family and friends adopted as family. Especially those friends who had moved away or for whatever reason hadn’t returned my phone calls or notes. I longed to reconnect. Wish them well. Let them know I missed them. Thank them for the times we’ve shared. The root ball would be the size of the earth.
Two days later, Cheri’s husband, Gerry, led an alpine trail ride up the same mountain.
An hour or so up he said, “Time to bushwack off the trail. I think you’ll like this. Watch your knees on the trunks. Push them aside if your horse brushes too close.”
He rode his horse off the gravel trail, through a gully and into the shade of Aspen. We followed. I saw the long grasses, thistle flowers, and tiny pink and purple Aster. We rode in a line. I listened to the Aspen leaves, the snapping of sticks under hoof, horses exhaling and each rider’s gentle reminder to the rider behind to beware of swish back branches. I saw the rubbed, wounded trees. I held my hand out to push trunks away, until the trail opened upon a spacious grove of Aspen. We all entered, like an open room and stopped. I looked at the canopy of leaves shifting in the breeze, dappling light and shadow against the sky. Gerry’s wire frame glasses reflected light, and he said, “Pretty nice, huh? ” We all nodded, Yes. Incredible. “I thought you’d enjoy this,” he said.
I let go the reins. My horse, Dakota, ate. We rested on horseback, looking around. The space reminded me of a Quaker meetinghouse. Our faces and heads reminded me of meerkats; wide eyed, heads turning, observing the wonder. The air was cooler. I heard the sound of wind meet leaves, horses breathing and eating. I said a prayer:
May all beings be well and at peace.
May quiet prevail.
May natural beauty prevail.
And may Ben, my college sweetheart, fighting cancer, prevail.
I’m so very grateful to be here with my family.
May I return here with my boyfriend one day.
My prayers are not religious. They are more like benevolent longings of gratitude for being part of the infinite, whatever the infinite is. Stardust, space and baby sea turtles scampering to the sea. My words and body and mind come together as a triptych of appreciation for an infinite forever thank you for intimacy, sentient beings and precious time on earth.
Once back in Pennsylvania, I texted Ben: Thinking of you. Sending you positive healing vibes. You’re in my thoughts.
He taught me how to sail a Sunfish, ride a mountain bike in the California desert and be a life long friend.
I was in the kitchen deciding what to make for dinner, when he texted: How did you know? Great intuition. Perfect timing. It came back. Had a second treatment.
He included a picture of himself, his two daughters and wife. He’d lost his hair and was thinner. I held onto the edge of the stove and looked closer. He looked like his father; that time he waved goodbye from the Nantucket wharf. I remembered Ben’s thick brown hair in college, when it grew so fast he’d called it “chia pet”.
I texted: Can you speak on the phone?
He called and said he was at Scripps getting more tests.
I said, “I love you Ben. What can I do to help? You’re very important to me. You’re part of my life and family. What can I do?”
He said he was sorry to upset me and was watching the sunset over the Pacific.
I told him that he was one of the finest people I’d ever met. One of the kindest. That his father would be so proud of him.
“I look like my Dad, eh?”
“Yeah, you do.”
“It’s all good, it’s all good. We’re just starting Jenniker (his nickname for me). It’s all positive, all good. We’re so lucky. I’m positive I’m going to beat this. And you’re a huge part of my story, you know. You mean so much to me.”
I closed and wiped my eyes and said the same of him.
He said, “Give my love to your family. I love your family.”
I promised I would and hung up. I sat, and breathed: Aspen grove in. Aspen grove out.
A week later, I emailed my family about Ben. I asked them: please remember what joy he brought to their life and to consider writing him. Yes, of course, said my father. I love Ben, said my mother. He’s a good egg, said my sister. Don’t forget his rollerblading, said my other sister.
Interconnected is how the beautiful Aspen grow.