Meeting Pando: an artist’s impressions

Meeting Pando - View of Pando from Coot Slough
Meeting Pando - View of Pando from Coot Slough

Meeting Pando: an artist’s impressions

Nature feeds my soul and lifts my spirit—no question about it. When I’m feeling blue, a walk in the woods will set me right again. On this particular bluebird day in Utah, I was decidedly not feeling blue and my soul was shining brighter than ever. My mood was lifted by a brightly shining sun and the clear blue sky. It was a bluebird day and one filled with discovery. I was meeting the tree called Pando. I was spending three days in and around the Pando tree, getting to know him (Pando is male) and the place he calls home.

What’s the big deal about this tree? Why is it special? Why should I care? I was there to answer these questions for myself.

I’m going to tell you the story of meeting Pando from my perspective as a nature lover and an artist. I’m not a botanist or a scientist of any kind and I’m just now learning about conservation vs preservation. I have so much to learn about Pando, but right now, I just want to share Pando with you.

Pando, In a Nutshell

I became aware of Pando via social media posts by my friend, Lance Oditt. Lance and I worked together at the Mamma Jamma Ride Against Breast Cancer back in 2012. I knew him as a computer guy since he was helping us revamp the MJ website. I didn’t realize that he was a photographer, designer, and artist until after he moved away from Austin to Seattle in 2016. I watched from afar on social media as Lance became involved in forest conservation using his art to bring awareness to aspen trees. Then, earlier this year, Lance called me and asked if I’d join him in documenting Pando this summer. I knew Lance was doing good work and making a difference in forest conservation, so I jumped at the chance to help. Thus started my efforts to learn about Pando and aspen trees in earnest.

Pando is well known in the scientific, naturalist, and forestry worlds, but most people outside those realms have never heard of it. I know I hadn’t. For those new to Pando, this massive organism is a quaking aspen that spreads out across 106 acres in the heartland of Utah. Its 47,000 branches appear to us as unique tree trunks, but are, in fact, genetically identical parts of the same tree connected by a massive root system.

Pando redefines our idea of “tree”. There is debate about what to call the Pando “trees” individually. Are they branches, limbs, stems? And there is a lot we don’t know about Pando. How did it get to be so big? Most aspen clones in eastern North America relatively small, usually less than 0.1 acres. In contrast, clones in the southern Rocky Mountains were much larger. And Pando weighs in as the largest at 106 acres and is estimated to weigh over 6600 tons making it the heaviest known organism on our planet. Think about that. The average Blue Whale weight 160 tons, so Pando is equivalent to about 41 Blue Whales. It’s massive. And, how old is Pando? Tree rings don’t tell the true story since each “tree” is really a stem of the bigger tree. The truth is, we don’t know. No good method currently exists to place an accurate age on the life span of Pando.

There are many mysteries to be revealed about this massive organism. But I’ll leave that to the scientists. My plan during my first visit to Pando was to let it all speak to me and become part my soul.

Meeting the Tree

My first sight of Pando was from the car as I drove through it on Highway 25 en route to Fish Lake. Yes, a road literally runs right through it. There is little to mark Pando’s presence other than a sign stating you are entering Pando, and another stating you have left Pando. That’s about it.

Pando Sign on Highway 25
Pando Sign on Highway 25

My first real experience in Pando was the next day as Lance and I set out to explore the tree. We started our day in what we call “Lower Pando” which is the area closest to Fish Lake, Utah’s largest natural mountain freshwater lake and popular recreating area. This section of Pando is fenced and has a trail through it. It is the area with the most human activity due to its proximity to the lake, road, and campground. There are plans to install interpretive signs to educate the public about the tree and its unique qualities. I hope this happens soon. I suspect many people recreating around Pando have no idea what it is.

Why are parts of Pando fenced off? Pando has two sections that are fenced off to keep deer, elk, and cattle out in an effort to give new stems a chance to grow. These animals apparently find Pando very tasty. So tasty, in fact, that they are inhibiting the regeneration of Pando to the point of potential decline. Pando has achieved its massive size through the process of suckering: A single tree sends out long, shallow roots that grow new suckers. These suckers, if left undisturbed, grow into another “tree” or stem on Pando. But elk, deer, and cattle find these little new suckers very tender and full of nutrients. Almost half of Pando is now fenced.

Pando Map
Pando aspen stem bitten off
Pando aspen stem bitten off
Fence in Lower Pando
Fence in Lower Pando

What struck me about this section of Pando is that it sits at the foot of Fish Lake in a swampy area called Coot Slough and it is BEAUTIFUL. The contrast between the white bark of Pando, the blue of the water, and the glow of the winter grasses in the slough made for beautiful photography. Throughout my time at Pando, I was continually drawn to the view of the slough through Pando.

Coot Slough as seen from Lower Pando

Later that day, Lance and I ventured to “Upper Pando” on the west side of the road. We entered another fenced area but this time, no path. Bushwhacking was the only way to see the tree as it begins to climb steeply up the hillside to higher elevations. Upper Pando is filled with volcanic rocks, downed trees, and brushy undergrowth. Huge fox holes dot the ground. Low to the ground Common Juniper bushes, with its prickly needles, made for lots of detours. The two of us meandered around taking in the beauty of Pando, photographing images that caught our eye. Like many things, a single photo cannot do justice to the subject. And how does one photograph a “single tree forest”? It’s impossible to capture it all, so I tried to capture smaller elements and reveal the story of Pando. Other times, I created Panoramas of a single stem of Pando that exhibited unique features. We spent hours just walking around, talking, and experiencing the tree and its home. In the photography world, they call this “field work”. In my world, I call it soul regenerating.

Impressions of Pando

At the end of the day, I leaned against a stem of Pando, closed my eyes and let my other senses take it all in. I could feel the tree sway in the breeze. My hands were chalky from the powder on the bark of the tree. The air smelled clean and pure. I was jolted out of my trance by an Osprey diving for a fish in the lake nearby. He shook water off himself like a dog as he flew off with his catch. The Canada Geese were squawking and sounding the alarm of people and predators in the area. Woodpeckers were drumming off in the distance. Fish were jumping and frogs were singing. A feeling of peace and tranquility came over me. I had met Pando and he did not disappoint.

Coot Slough and Fish Lake as seen from Upper Pando

About the Author

Janis Connell is a traveler, photographer, mosaic artist, hiker, biker, birder, and lover of US public lands and National Parks. She is based out of Durango, Colorado and you can find additional works and articles by her on her website, Janiscartistry.com.
This article is republished here with her permission and was originally published on her blog as “Janis Meets Pando May 2021“.