Burning questions: Can Aspens get depressed?

Jaena Bloomquist

The Aspen trees in my backyard appear to be depressed.

One in particular is at the far corner, next to the big rock my kids play on during summer days.

I’ve started calling this particular tree Rupert. Not sure why, but it’s kind of a fun name to say, the way it pushes your mouth around when you say it, making it work harder than most English words, which slip out, sneaky as burglars, from lips that barely move.

Rupert didn’t used to be depressed — that I know of. I am an ignoramus when it comes to trees, and plant life in general. But over the half-dozen years I’ve lived in this house, Rupert and his friends seemed pretty healthy – upright, rustling their leaves cheerily during summer and fall, standing proud and bare during the winter, wearing the coatings of snow like frosty mantles.

But last year Rupert and co. got hammered by an unexpected early deluge of rain and heavy, wet snow, and it broke many of them darn near in half. Rupert didn’t break, but he bent down to the snow-covered grass, like he was bowing to some invisible ruler. Now, he is no longer scraping his elegant branches on the ground, but he seems burdened anyway. He seems like he has lost his joie de vivre. Maybe he’s just waiting for the next deluge, not bothering to stand upright; what’s the point, anyhow?

I dreamed about him the other night: His leaves were candy-apple red, and so was his trunk, and so were his branches. Like someone had thrown buckets of red paint on him. It scared me, and I awoke in the dark, breathing fast and shallow. Red Rupert was not something I wanted to see again, in a dream or out of one.

And Red Rupert got me to wondering, too, as I tried to relax enough to let sleep return: When he (for Rupert, by simple fact of his name, must be a “he”) wasn’t being overburdened with moisture-heavy snow, did he too, wonder about the smoke and fire, when that time of year came around? Did he too feel the heaviness of the particulate-laden air, and sense the dimming of the sunlight through the haze of smoke? Did he know that, if fire were to reach him, there would be nowhere to go, that the family who had enjoyed watching him and playing in his shade would flee, leaving him to burn?

Of course, all of the trees in the fire — and drought-prone western US are threatened and suffering. But Rupert and the other Aspens seem, to my ignorant view, more vulnerable than others. Maybe it is the Aspens’ graceful slenderness; the way their leaves famously tremble in the breeze. Maybe it is the strange underground connection they have to each other, the clonal colonies that make them not so much groves of trees as one spreading, enormous giant whose fingers push up into the air spanning a third of a football field.

The Aspens are like us, I think; they are connected to each other — underneath, where it counts — even though they appear free-standing. They are beautiful, and delicate, and proud. And they are strong; they can bend very far without breaking… But many of them are starting to break. They can only take so much strain before it becomes too much.

We’ve removed some of our Aspens after last year’s early-winter dump, a few of the unlucky ones just hit the ground, roots up. Of the remaining ones, we’ve sawed off quite a few limbs.

Rupert is relatively unscathed so far, other than his depressed demeanor. Maybe he will perk up come springtime. And maybe he will get through another wildfire season without becoming a sad memory for us, the family who loves him and plays underneath his quivering, whispering leaves.

Jaena Bloomquist is a Truckee resident and mother of two. She is a writer, editor, and climate advocate. She can be reached at

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