Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Friday, June 16, 2006


A couple of months ago, Bev at Burning Silo blogged about arborglyphs, man-made carvings in living trees. It made me think of my old pal Joe Mendiola, who traveled throughout Utah's Wasatch and Uintah mountains from the mid 1950s to the early '70s. I never actually met Joe-- I always assumed he was a sheepherder, though his montane peregrinations could have been motivated by any number of factors. What I do know, and know rather well, is his four-foot-long, vertical signature. In the '50s, a small, horizontal “Joe” sat atop a steeply sloping “Mendiola.” With time, the signature became more flowery and graceful. For a couple of years in the early '60s, he identified himself as “José.” These carvings were invariably in the bark of Quaking Aspens (Populus tremuloides), the tree of choice around here for arborglyphists. The aspen's thin, chalky-white outer bark is easily sliced away, and after about a year, the exposed green cork cambium begins to create a rugose, black scar, and the signature grows ever bolder with time.

The most widespread North American tree species, Quaking Aspens are found throughout the continent, from the Arctic Circle as far south as Guanajuato, Mexico. They are named for their circular, saw-toothed leaves, which connect perpendicularly to flattened petioles in a flexible “joint.” Any slight breeze causes the leaf to flap back and forth at this junction, alternately displaying a dark green upper surface and a pale, bluish venter. The overall effect is a very beautiful shimmering that is conspicuous even from a distance. In fall the leaves turn a uniform apple-gold, losing their shimmering quality, but exchanging it for an equally satisfying esthetic. In the spring, female trees produce catkins filled with tiny windborn seeds. One tree can produce over a million viable seeds in a season, but here in arid Utah, very few of these become trees, since at least two years of persistent rainfall is required for the seedlings to germinate and survive (local sites have been recently discovered where aspens reproduce sexual with regularity; this is still poorly understood). Parthenogenesis is the norm for aspens in the Rocky Mountains. Suckers are sent up from a common root system, and the typical stand of these trees is genetically identical, and usually either male or female, though hermaphroditic clones do occur. The largest known aspen clone is right here in the Wasatch Mountains. Over 47,000 male tree stems cover an area of 43 hectares (17.2 acres), making it one of the largest known organisms on earth, depending on your definitions. The clone has been estimated to be over one million years old, causing some to claim that it's the oldest, as well, even though the oldest tissue up there is no more than a couple of centuries old.

Individual aspen stems can live over a century, but they rarely survive half that long. All of the stems marked “Mendiola” that I remember as a kid have long since toppled. Of the handful of trees I carved on myself (in direct violation of my parents' exhortations) only dry logs remain, without a trace of “CPBvK” or “FTA” (A vulgar anti-military acronym of the day, particularly meaningful when graffitied by a ten-year-old delinquent). Each living stem produces auxins that inhibit sucker growth in the nearby roots. Once a stem dies, and hormonal activity ceases, sucker production is triggered.

Aspens are very tasty and moderately nutritious. Wherever they occur (around here, that's between about 6,500 and 12,000 feet), their leaves, buds, catkins and cambium are important food sources the year round for many insects, birds, and mammals. The soft wood of dead stems is favored for nesting cavities by many woodpecker species, and once abandoned, the holes serve as nesting sites for other birds and insects. I've never found Flammulated Owls (Otus flammeolus) nesting in this region in any other tree species.

While backpacking the other day, I established a camp, then left to explore a small draw. As I neared the summit, I noticed a large aspen with a telltale mark running down much of its length: “Jose Mendiola 1963.” I'd thought of the name many times in recent years, but hadn't seen it for at least a decade. As I prepared myself for kindergarten, my friend Joe carved with a new-found ethnic pride into a stem that had erupted from the ground soon after the death of another stem just like it, early in the FDR administration, and that stands today, still healthy at a diameter of 16 inches: a fading reminder of a sheepherder, deer hunter, or maybe just an avid hiker.
upper: FLAMMULATED OWL (1990) acrylic 15" x 20"
lower: Photograph of Aspen arborglyph taken by CPBvK in the Wasatch Mountains, June 3, 2006


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have seen Mr. Jose's signature having grown up a camper right here in Utah. Have pocketknife, will travel.

I like your blog--light, humorous, well grammarated...

1:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While reading this I had one of those Aha!! moments. A friend once took us to a grove of poplar trees near her farm in the West of Saskatchewan. It was apparently an extremely well known place. In the centre of this grove there was an area where the poplar trees were all twisted, really quite something to see, the trunks and branches meandered aimlessly.

Janice and our friend spent a good deal of time speculating as to the cause, chemicals, strange earth energy, some very esoteric stuff. Being more pragmatic I suggested that perhaps all of the twisted trees were decendants of one stock, and that the simple solution was to somehow check their DNA. Now that I, thanks to you, know of their reproduction by suckering I think that that is probably the answer. Some form of mutation in the original tree that now made it's own grove of twisted trees.

9:45 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Stupidramblings: Thanks! Nice to hear from a homeboy!
Clare: That's interesting. I grew up about a mile from a similar twisted aspen clone.

11:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading this post. I wonder whatever happened to Mendiola.

3:03 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks, Aydin. I often wonder about him, too. If he's alive, he's probably in his 70s now.

8:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the location of this oldest aspen clone?

9:33 AM  

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