A giant lives in a forest of central Utah. It spreads itself before the banks of Fish Lake. When the wind blows through the valley, it quakes. It is ancient, older than any human civilization. Its name is Pando, the Trembling Giant, a thick forest of aspen trees that form one of the world’s largest organisms. Pando has survived for thousands, possibly millions, of years, but now it’s dying. The question remains: do we have what it takes to save it?

Aspens are incredible plants. They can grow up to 80 feet (around 24 meters) tall, and their individual tree stems — the part of the tree we see breach the ground — can live to be over 200 years old. Aspens have two methods of reproduction: they seed or they sprout. Seeding refers to the growth of new root systems and requires male and female flowers to fruit separately and germinate seeds that might grow into plants of their own. Sprouting is more common and refers to the way in which established root systems “clone” themselves, producing tree stems that are genetically identical to each other. Because they reproduce like this, aspens thrive in the wake of forest fires, the ashen ground providing a fertile base for them to spread to new areas.

 

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This is how Pando, the name given to the grove of clones (which is considered a single organism) that covers over 106 acres of Fish Lake National Forest, has become as massive as it is. The United States Forest Service believes that it’s concurrently the heaviest, largest, and oldest single organism in the world. While each of its estimated 40,000 tree stems can live for centuries, its root base can continue to grow new copies of itself for millennia. Thus, the Trembling Giant has thrived, copying itself decade upon decade, spreading across the landscape. Fittingly, its name, Pando, is derived from the latin phrase meaning “I spread.”

The Trembling Giant was officially discovered by scientists in the 1970s, though its true age (it’s estimated to be anywhere from 80,000 to millions of years old) and scale were confirmed more recently through genetic testing. Ever since its discovery, the forest has drawn flocks of visitors wanting to witness its charming seasonal colors year-round. From spring through summer, the trees bear delicate flowers that produce cotton-like seeds called catkins. As summer wanes, the leaves turn from green to golden yellow, causing whole valleys to shimmer as the aspens’ leaves whirl about their stems at even the slightest breeze.

 

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Pando is a famous and brilliant example of this trembling golden spectacle, being the largest-known single aspen in existence. However, its future is uncertain. Year after year, the U.S. Forest Service has observed the grove receding, as old shots die and new ones fail to grow at the rate necessary to sustain it. Why the aspen grove has begun to shrink remains largely a mystery, though the Forest Service believes factors like extended periods of drought, over-grazing by wild animals like deer and other ungulates, and fire suppression have each contributed to the organism’s declining health. Aspens can usually spread their clones across an area relatively quickly, compared to slower-growing trees like conifers and pines. To grow as large as Pando, however, aspens require particular conditions such as sufficient space, access to large amounts of light, and just the right amount of water.

As temperatures grow increasingly hotter and yearly rainfall decreases, Pando’s new stems struggle to survive through their infancy. What’s more, the aspens’ slower-growing, but more hardy rivals (such as conifers or pines) now have a better chance of outgrowing the young trees and spread their own canopies wider, blocking the saplings’ access to sunlight. Usually seasonal forest fires level the playing field. Aspens are well evolved to handle the heat, so if a fire were to blaze through Fish Lake, Pando would remain relatively unscathed — a sleeping behemoth, safe under the burning ground. As its root system is so dense and vast, it could  regrow its tree stems after a fire faster than its chief competitors. However, we are naturally a fire-averse species, and our efforts to stop them from starting and spreading have actually left Pando at a disadvantage.

 

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Concerted efforts to save the Trembling Giant are already underway, and the Forest Service has cordoned off areas of the grove to test methods of supporting and nurturing the organism’s growth. Ultimately, time will tell whether or not Pando, which has survived for over 80,000 years, can continue to flourish. There is only so much we can do to preserve this ancient treasure if the ground conditions it requires deteriorate further.

Regardless of its decline, Pando stands as a monument to the beauty and scale of the natural world. Remember to take care when visiting the grove, for it has been a part of this world longer than almost any other organism alive today. By showing Pando respect, we can, in our own small way, help it thrive for centuries to come.

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Alistair Hornsby
Alistair Hornsby was born and raised in Luxembourg but currently resides in the UK. He likes to keep himself busy with practicing photography, art, and design. He’s no stranger to travel, two of his favourite journeys having taken him around-the-world, and across the U.S. He currently works on the Editorial Team at Passion Passport, helping to bring impactful stories to the world. You can follow him along his way at https://www.instagram.com/alstiar/ or check out his upcoming photo journal, Saudade, at https://www.saudademagazine.com/.