The Aspen: A Model Of Interconnectedness

When I began using a camera creatively, I approached trees and forests mainly as objects to facilitate the development of my aesthetic eye. Recently, Peter Wohllenben’s book The Hidden Life Of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate expanded my appreciation by describing their acute sensory and communication processes. After reading that book I discovered that the aspen have much to say about the current political and social climate worldwide, and I’ve been amazed at how my aesthetic and life has been enriched as a consequence of better understanding the marvelous capacities of trees.

Aspen trees grow 24 inches per year to a height of 50 feet or more. Because they grow in stands (called clones) and reproduce by sending up sprouts—individual trees—from their roots, they’re the largest living organism on the planet. Virtually all the trees in a clone are connected, so while the lifespan of an individual tree is normally 100–150 years these days, there’s a clone in Minnesota that has been estimated to be 8,000 years old. And in Fishlake National Forest, Utah, there’s a clone of interconnected aspen roots that researchers consider to be a single tree with one massive underground root system over 80,000 years old covering more than 100 acres and resulting in a forest of approximately 47,000 individual trunks.

More generally, German scientists discovered that most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected through their root systems, and they exchange nutrients in times of need. The researchers regard such forests as “superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.” What’s more, all trees distinguish their roots from those of other species, even the roots of related individuals. And they work together. An individual tree is at the mercy of changes in the weather, but together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates the extremes of heat and cold, stores water and generates humidity, allowing individuals to live to be very old. 

Typical of all living systems these scientists say, the goal of a forest is to keep living no matter what. According to author and forester Peter Wohllenben, “If every tree were looking out only for himself, then many of them would never reach old age leaving gaps in the canopy, making it easier for storms to get inside, uproot more trees, allow heat to reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.” This is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished—through the roots—until they recover.

Of cultural interest, Druid’s took their novices and initiates to aspen groves for a taste of transcendental bliss. They believed that in watching the trees and listening to the quaking of their leaves a trance could be induced in which they would journey to other realms of consciousness where special knowledge could be gained. The Onondagas of Upstate New York, one of five nations in the Iroquois Confederacy, called the aspen nut-kie-e, meaning “noisy leaf” because of the sound the leaves make in the wind. And many First American tribes regarded the aspen as a symbol for clarity of purpose, determination and overcoming fears and doubts.


Contemplating the interconnectedness of aspen, I backtracked to the roots of that phenomenon and realized that fundamentally, all of life is interconnected by virtue of the Big Bang. While living systems diverged and proliferated exponentially since then, every cell, organ, individual and species retains its dependency upon all the other systems—elemental, physical and social—for life to continue. As in the aspen grove, the existence and quality of life of each member of the human community depend upon the condition of the greater wholes in which it functions—family, community, organization, nation and planet. Putting the mathematics of chaos theory and the reality of interconnectedness in  terms that were understandable, a meteorologist commented that a flap of a seagull’s wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever. This idea then gave rise to the “Butterfly Effect,” the observation that the flap of a butterfly wing in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas. The point was that even the smallest change in any part of a system affects the whole. Because the Earth is so large and heavily populated with human beings, it can be difficult to see the truth of this. But now, due to everyone’s personal experience and reports in the media, it has become obvious to most that one person’s behavior—for good or ill—has large scale consequences.

Every living creature must get materials and energy from its environment to form itself and to keep itself alive. This is why no living creature can ever be entirely independent—it is always a holon within larger holons, including ecosystems, depending on them for its very life.

Elisabet Sahtouris (Biologist)

That we are interconnected can no longer be denied, not when a single pet vendor in China doesn’t wash his hands after handling a bat creating a global health and economic crisis; when vegetables, poultry and seafood spread disease and affect the economy because of errors in sanitation; when a nation or company fouls the water or air in order to reduce costs; when the cost of medicines greatly exceeds the cost to develop and produce them; when a parent neglects or abuses a child and that child becomes an active shooter sending waves of fear throughout the world; when ethics is violated in the interest of profits; when dictators murder their people and destroy cities in order to retain power; when democratic leaders turn a blind eye to science that warns of impending health and environmental disasters and when nations decide to go it alone in a world where survival and growth will increasingly depend upon their collaboration.

“Nationalism” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations.” Basically, it’s national self-centeredness. Although it may be understandable, in part, when relations with other nations have not been particularly beneficial, a more appropriate and constructive strategy would be to do what nature does—work on improving the relationships. Symbiosis.

Evolution and history demonstrate that Nature does not respect individuals. It safeguards and promotes the continuation and increasing complexity of whole systems—species in our case. At all levels, living systems arise and fall. Individuals, nations, planets and galaxies are born, grow and die. What remains is the cosmos, driven by the universal constants of change and increasing complexity. Although we may not think about it, every day each of us experiences change and increasing complexity personally, professionally, socially and globally. Without change there can be no life. 

From the perspective of the community of nations, those that place their emphasis on self above others are thinking and acting like cancer cells in the human body, striving for as much growth as possible in any way they can regardless of the consequences to the whole. In living systems, individuality is a destructive illusion. When these systems attempt to grow in isolation, the result is increasing stress and eventual breakdowns in functionality.

One of the motivating forces behind my fascination with indigenous cultures and the ancient Maya in particular was their common understanding and experience of all things as alive and interconnected. Most such cultures, if not all, didn’t have a word for “I.” The individual reference was either a name or the collective “we.” There was no ownership of land or objects. A member of the tribe had the use of a horse or garment, perhaps even for a lifetime, but if someone else needed or wanted it more, it would be traded. And because the world was perceived to be alive, possessed of a spirit that had to be dealt with in order to maintain balance, everything was accorded respect. And out of respect, the rule was to take from nature only what was needed and waste nothing. Of course, there were other principles of indigenous people that we would consider barbaric. But on the positive side, they acquired the knowledge and wisdom of how to live in harmony with nature.

In our case, having inherited “Enlightenment” philosophies that separated matter and spirit, body and soul, science and religion—and divided science into specialities—we’ve grown accustomed to the illusion of separation to the extent that materialism has become the unqualified means for an individual to secure comfort, success and security. However, a grave consequence of separation is fear. “Everyone else is grabbing the good stuff; I need to get my share.” “The more I have, the bigger and better my experience, the happier I’ll be, and the better off my family.” Where there’s fear there’s a need to possess and control. So without thinking, acquisition and accumulation became normalized in Western culture and the mass media continuously ramps up  the desire for more, better, faster and newer. 

As noted, the consciousness and behavior of self-centeredness in society equates with a cancerous cell. In anthropology, this kind of thinking derives from “the belief of limited good.” In societies where the good is perceived to be finite, not enough to go around, the members hoard and eventually give away everything they have in order to be respected. In psychology, a contributing phenomenon is the “mentality of scarcity,” the need to acquire before things run out. Whatever the name, evidence of enflamed materialism operating in our culture today is seen in television commercials and the Black Friday stampedes on stores that offer dramatic sales after Thanksgiving Day. Never mind that much of that material—transformed  sunlight and earth—will likely be discarded or replaced in a matter of months or years, ending up in a landfill outgassing CO2.

Given the way human beings are raised and enculturated around the world, seeing ourselves separate is natural. It’s only when it occurs to us—through personal or perceived tragedy or being taught otherwise—that we are inexplicably interdependent and interconnected, that we come to grips with the fact of inexorable change and its consequences. Once we see that independence is a fantasy, that the “self-made man” and “rugged individual” were images created to generate wealth for a few, and that having money, goods and grand experiences are distractions from what really matters in life—health and well-being, personal growth, creative expression, loving and empowering relationships to name a few—we can put the fear of change in perspective. 

With respect to change, we each have three choices: 1) Ignore it; 2) Go against it—fight to maintain the status quo (existing systems) at all costs; or 3) Make the best of change as it approaches or occurs by attempting, through collaboration, to steer it in a constructive direction.  Ignoring change just puts it off. Fighting it has resulted in the polarization that humanity is currently working through worldwide on its way toward realizing that the illusion of separation—with its consequent unbridled materialism—is leading our species to the brink of extinction. The way through our fears and challenges, of course, is to unite and create fresh solutions that are in harmony with Nature and each other.  

Easier said than done. When members of a living system choose to be led by an individual who openly and consistently communicates falsehoods—who is ego-centric, unapologetically ignorant and reluctant to consider the voices of experience and wisdom, who is lacking in empathy, values the making of money for the privileged over promoting quality of life for all, who denies his inadequacies and exalts his regressive decisions, who builds by exclusion, denigrates those unlike himself, demeans his dissenters and whose modus operandi across the board is to separate, deceive and disconnect—they are seriously out of step with nature.

It is not enough to remove and replace the offending leader. In a climate of increasing  stress and breakdowns with collapse on the horizon, those who would restore harmony and promote the health of both the members and the social body, recognizing their interdependence, will want to take responsibility for the parts and the whole through mutual respect, creativity, inclusion and collaboration—the modalities of nature that insure more and greater life.  

Is that possible? Can the awareness and understanding of Nature’s law of interconnectedness be accelerated in time to save the nations and planet? I believe it can by educating ourselves, bringing the reality of our interconnectedness into discussions whatever the topic, shifting personal habits that respect all of life and voting for individuals who understand that the health of the forest depends on the health of all trees. What about people who don’t understand the dynamics of interconnection and can’t be persuaded? Sometimes it takes a tragic experience to wake up and adopt a deeply heartfelt sense of responsibility for the whole. Many, I believe, in their heart-of-hearts already know that we’re one and interconnected at the roots.   

Were we to understand our fundamental interconnections, we would recognize that our own well-being or the development of our soul and consciousness is totally dependent on the development of every other human being on the planet.

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Knowing where we came from,

that we are not alone,

members of a grand forest,

we can weather any storm.


we stand together in love

enjoying unbounded distinction, 

glorious uniquenesss

and freedom.

All for one and one in all,

roots intertwined,

golden glory quaking in the wind,

we are Aspen.

Along with our neighbors

in uncountable forests,

we remember that

we are all rooted in the Earth.

David L. Smith


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