Documenting Pando, the World’s Largest Tree

A close up image of one Pando’s 40,000 branches as autumn advances across the 9,000 foot high Fishlake Basin in Central Utah. Photo credit: Lance Oditt / Friends of Pando
A close up image on of one Pando’s 40,000 branches as autumn advances across the 9,000 foot high Fishlake Basin in Central Utah. Photo credit: Lance Oditt / Friends of Pando

by Lance Oditt

Pando (and the superlative imagination)

High in a mountain basin in central Utah, where the Colorado Plateau meets the Basin and Range provinces, stands a recent discovery, the world’s largest tree and largest living organism, Pando, an aspen clone comprised of over 40,000 genetically identical branches that span across 106 acres of the Fishlake National Forest. For those who enjoy the math of superlative subjects; Pando’s estimated dry weight of 13.2 million pounds makes it three times larger than the largest Redwood.  An internet search for largest living organism may yield the “Humungous Fungus” of Oregon, which is larger by area, but weighs a mere 820,000 lbs. Above ground, where Pando’s branches explode into dendritic patterns that reach some 80 feet into the sky, research indicates Pando’s land mass absorbs enough solar energy to power 70,000 homes a year.

Shifting away from facts and toward superlatives of fiction, claims that Pando is 40,000 or even 80,000 years old are simply false, since the land Pando calls home was covered in a glacier till at least 12,000 years ago. What’s more, a “long-lived” branch of Pando, which appears to the untrained eye as a single trunk, rarely lives more than 150 years old. Complicating matters, the tree’s rapid regeneration from the its massive interconnected root system, means that no part of the “original” tree remains that we can reliably age. Although the individual stems of the giant tree are shaped by their immediate environment as they grow, aesthetics aside, the Pando that is, is the Pando that always has been. If this seems underwhelming, I encourage you to visit the Bristlecone’s of California’s remote White Mountains who live over 5,000 years. What’s more, keep in mind Pando lives on recreation land and what we learn from Pando and how we manage it, will profoundly shape our approach to understanding aspen the world over. This matters, as aspen are a keystone species across the northern hemisphere from the edge of the Colorado plateau to the arctic circle.

An aerial view of Pando showing the boundaries of the 106 acre tree in bright green. Photo credit: Lance Oditt / Friends of Pando
An aerial view of Pando showing the boundaries of the 106 acre tree in bright green. Photo credit: Lance Oditt / Friends of Pando

Pando: Unseen and Seen

A master of coordination, Pando balances the seasons of its life, energy production, defense and regeneration on a massive scale, a fact that made its discovery possible. Acting as a singular system distinct from surrounding trees, in the spring, Pando sends an explosion of bright green leaves across its expanse and in autumn, those leaves change virtually at once.

Despite the fact we have archeologic evidence of human use of the land Pando calls home going back 10,000 years, it wasn’t until the 1960s that botanists Burton Barnes and Jerry Kemperman, who were researching clones, identified the Pando as a single organism. In a 1976 paper, they identified the clone as one of many clones observed through aerial and ground observations. Observations which would go unnoticed until the 1990’s when a group led by Michael Grant, confirmed their research and named the tree, “Pando” which is Latin, for “I spread”. It would take another 15 years and advances in genetic testing methods until Pando was definitively verified by researchers Jennifer DeWoody, Carol Rowe, Valerie Hipkins and Karen Mock. Although it may be hard to believe something so large could escape observation for so long, the fact that Pando is male and thus, only produces pollen and no flowers, also means that the traditional modes of botanical study based on weather patterns, migrations, pollination, and observation of flowers simply could not reveal Pando’s nature. Save a very short window of time in spring and a short moment in fall, Pando is invisible to the untrained eye.

It cannot be understated that Pando’s discovery came about because of novel approaches to aesthetics and connecting the seen and unseen. These approaches have inspired my work documenting the Pando over the past five years and moved me to develop photographic methods and models to create the first comprehensive photographic survey of the tree; a survey that will capture over 8,000 locations using 360-degree cameras and satellite-based location systems. An effort that will involve a crew of 20 citizen scientists working 8 hours a day for 9 days to complete. A baseline document created in such a way that it may be replicated by the next generation of scientists. A vital record we will make freely available for study as scientists have found evidence that Pando is in a season of decline due to human land use policies put in place before its discovery.

Night photo looking up at aspens reaching for the sky. A summer night shot of Pando shimmering in the moonlight. Pando’s bark contains chlorophyll allowing it to photosynthesize without leaves or even, in low light conditions. Photo credit: Lance Oditt / Friends of Pando
A summer night shot of Pando shimmering in the moonlight. Pando’s bark contains chlorophyll allowing it to photosynthesize without leaves or even, in low light conditions. Photo credit: Lance Oditt / Friends of Pando

Pando in the ethnosphere

Trees have been a favored subject in photography since the advent of the camera, something many people are surprised to learn in workshops I give. William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1842 “Oak Tree in Winter” is a study in both landscape and the technical limitations of his invention; as early cameras lacked precise shutter or exposure controls making static subjects like trees, preferrable. Since those early days, trees have been a celebrated subject in nearly every aesthetic movement in art and photography since Talbot’s invention. Gustave Le Gray and Eugene Cuvelier’s works capturing the Fontainebleau. The visual herbariums of Blossfeldt and, the dark meditations of Alvin Langdon Coburn. Man Ray in Sequoia and Herbert’s Bayer’s aspen photomontages. Edward Weston’s straight Willow Tree and Eliot Porters color rhapsodies. The New Topographers. The luminous celebrations of Irene Kung and Cédric Pollet and the poetic exhortations of John Sexton and Ryan J. Bush. On larger scales, meditations on space by Myoung Ho Lee and the masterworks of Clyde Butcher and James Balog. When Herman Hesse said “Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is.” it is not hard to see how trees have sustained focus in nearly every creative movement of the last two centuries. In the conceptual layer of life defined by human consciousness and imagination, what anthropologist Wade Davis calls the ethnosphere, trees are a constant and profound companion. They mediate the space between ground and sky and shape the light and land by which, nearly every human moment is framed.  

Not only a favored subject of photography, trees are also ubiquitous in the antecedents of modern-day virtual reality including painterly illusions, panoramas and stereograms. From the room sized Villa Livia featuring Oak, Cypress and Oleander dating to 20 B.C., to modern times, immersive storytelling is replete with trees. Trees, as visceral subjects such as those found in Marshmallow Laser Feasts’ immersive multimedia exploration of Redwood trees Treehugger: Wawona. Trees as tangible, in the computer-generated work TreeSense, by Milica Zec and Winslow Porter. Trees, center-stage in human stories of transformation like that found in the award-winning 360 film, Tree Huggers. Trees, a subject renewed by a new generation of artists who seek to experience, know and re-imagine the spaces between earth and sky. Works that provided a foundation and guideposts for Friends of Pando’s work documenting Pando in 360-degrees and which helped us garner support and funding, to transcribing Pando’s land mass on to other physical and conceptual spaces so that people can experience Pando’s scale and learn about the challenges before us as its stewards, while they do.

Coda

In the next installment of this three-part series, I will explore my work developing photographic models to capture the Pando and the broad collaboration involved in making the survey and the virtual Pando possible. The formation of Friends of Pando and the larger collective of scientists, community leaders, volunteers and forest rangers working in southern Utah to realize the project. Last but not least, the enthusiasm of students and volunteers from art, design and natural sciences backgrounds eager to take part. In the meantime, if you would like to learn more about Pando and how you can support our work, please visit friendsofpando.org.

Lance Oditt is a fine art and documentary photographer based in Seattle, Washington. Lance is the Lead Photographer for the Pando Photographic Survey. In addition to this work, Lance is the Photographer-at-Large for the Western Aspen Alliance and Executive Director of Accessibility for Quiet Parks International. His work documenting the endangered Pando Tree has appeared in Digital Photographer, Professional Photographers of America, Discover Magazine, PBS Newshour, The New York Times, Topos Magazine and Nature. His photographic works have been shown at Microsoft (Redmond, WA), the APA San Francisco’s “Something Personal” exhibit (2018) and have been commended and shown online by the National Forest Foundation. You can follow Lance’s journey and learn more about his conservation work on Instagram @studio4760north or, his studio website studio4760north.com and drop him a line.