Nothing scared me more than thinking an invisible being was speaking to me. I wandered all over the mountains in southeast Kentucky, never fearing a thing, until I was told that the whispering aspens were messengers from our Creator. I stopped dead in my tracks, because until that time, I had always smiled when I heard the trees talking. I thought they were talking to each other, telling secrets, having fun, just as I did when I had someone to play with. Not so, said Aunt Bett, those trees that trembled when there was no wind were sacred trees, and should be listened to with open ears and open heart.
It is an amazing tree, the aspen, and we were fortunate to have a few stands of them in the mountains where I grew up. They were highly visible on the mountainside as I sat on the rocker on my front porch. Mountains were all around me, and from any direction, I could pick them out from all the others. The olive gold leaves trembled with no provocation, and as they trembled they picked up the sunlight causing the entire stand to glitter and sparkle. None of the other trees did that, so it looked like a tree full of treasures to me.
Populus tremuloides , the trembling aspen, is so lavish with its gifts that it is said to feed no less than 500 species of animals, fungi, and other life forms. The beaver prefers its bark to all others and builds his dams of its poles; its winter buds are fare for grouse; the moose browses on its foliage all year round. Man, too, once relied on this tree as a source of foods and medicines. Various North American Indians ate the inner bark or drank the syrup derived from it in a spring tonic or energy source. The Crees boiled the bark for a cough medicine. The Delawares boiled the root to obtain a tonic for debility, and they made a cold remedy from the bark. The Mohawks used the bark tea to expel worms. The Fox people boiled trembling aspen buds in fat as a salve for a cold sufferer's sore nostrils. The Chippewas brewed a drink from the roots to prevent premature childbirth, prepared a heart medicine from various parts of the tree, and applied the chewed up bark to cuts. In the 19th century, herbalists, picking up where the Indians left off, experimented with tinctures of the bark as a remedy for fever, rheumatism, arthritis, and the common cold, as well as for worms.
Aspens grow in all terrains except swamps. It is native to North America, and is found from Newfoundland west to Alaska, south to Virginia, Kentucky and Iowa, and in mountain areas as far south as western Mexico. It is a small short lived tree growing up to 40 feet tall. It has a smooth, nearly white bark that roughens and darkens with age. Roundish oval leaves, which flutter in even the slightest breeze, are borne on slender flattened leafstalks. Flowers appear in long clusters called catkins in April and May, about a month before the leaves make an appearance.
Pharmacologists state that trembling aspen has chemical qualities similar to those of aspirin, and would therefore be expected to be used for fevers, mild pain, and inflammations. The tree is economically valuable for reforestation, its roots rarely burn in a forest fire, and it is one of the few that will grow even after suffering a fire's devastation. It is very sturdy tree whose wood is made into magazine pulp and has been used for matches and cheap crates. It has also been a popular choice for oars and paddles, and in ancient times it was used in arrows.
All of those practical applications that I have just listed mean very little to me. The beauty of the aspen lies in its legends and the wonder that overcame me when I was a little girl listening for its message. I spent many days wandering alone in the mountains. I thought I was talking to the birds when I mimicked their chirps. I listened for the sounds made by ants as they crawled over and under twigs on the ground. I wondered if spiders made a noise when they wove their webs from one leaf to another late in the evening. I just knew I heard lightening bugs click when they turned their lights on and off. I knew the sounds of the water as it rushed down the mountain in the early spring, and the slower sound as it trickled in the heat of summer. And I knew those aspen leaves were whispering to each other.
There is a legend that goes like this: It was believed that the aspen was cursed forever, and it trembled in shame because it was the wood of the tree that became the cross on which Christ died. I have my doubts about that because usually the tree prefers cool mountain ranges, and not hot dry regions, but then I don't really know. That was not something that bothered me in those days. I was more concerned with the ancient belief that the wind was associated with the "voice of the Spirit". Aunt Bett told me that when the leaves whisper among themselves and there is no wind blowing, we can be sure that it is God telling us something. I sat beneath the aspen trees for hours, barely breathing, trying to understand the words that He was telling me. I finally decided He must not speak English, because for the life of me, I couldn't understand a word.
More often, the trees made me smile, whispering as they did, twinkling in the sunlight, lighting up my days. It didn't take much to make me happy.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Kennedyh for the thumbnail, Xenomorf for the clump of yellow trees, Kelli for the group of mint green color, and Gustichock for the close up photo of the yellow leaves.
References include: http://members.shaw.ca/necommis/SpiritualElement%20of%20Trees.htm
Magic and Medicine of Plants, Reader's Digest Association, 1986