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.

Giving Pause featuring Clay Bolt

The Nature Photographer episode #14 on Wild & Exposed podcast

Fuzzy-horned bumble bee (Bombus mixtus), Idaho © Clay Bolt

Conservation photographer Clay Bolt tells Dawn Wilson, Ron Hayes, and Mark Raycroft how he learned about the rusty-patched bumble bee and why he got involved in efforts to get it added to the Endangered Species list. Find out how this bee stopped the Atlantic Coast pipeline, what you can do in your own community to support native pollinators, and which SNL Weekend Update joke hit close to home for Clay. Plus, hear what happened when Clay and Eli Wyman went to Indonesia in search of Wallace’s giant bee—a species that hadn’t been seen in more than 35 years—and why your mobile phone may be the best conservation tool around. 

Continue reading

Nature Photography Day Is Coming

Nature Photography Day Graphic
Click to download a Nature Photography Day flyer to display or share.

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

June 15 is Nature Photography Day, a time to promote the enjoyment of nature photography and to reflect on how photos can be used to further the cause of conservation. NANPA celebrated the first Nature Photography Day (NPD) back in 2006 and, over the past 15 years, there have been many ways the day has been observed—not just in North America but across the globe as well.

Continue reading

Showcase 2021 Winner: Jeremy Burnham

Photo of a pelican floating in the water with a beer can in its beak. Pelican Not "Living the High Life,"  Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Showcase 2021 Judges’ Choice, Conservation © Jeremy Burnham
Pelican Not “Living the High Life,” Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Showcase 2021 Judges’ Choice, Conservation © Jeremy Burnham

Artist’s statement

This photo is special to me because it evokes emotion. My goal as a photographer is to capture pictures in such a way that the viewer will feel the same thing I feel at the time of the photo. There are some pictures that I think are great as a photographer, but they don’t resonate with others. I could tell immediately after sharing this picture that it evoked the kind of emotion in others that would help facilitate positive change. It has been used by conservationists throughout Louisiana to help clean up our stormwater collection system and bring attention to our litter and pollution problems.

Continue reading

Conservation Kids

Photo of a group of young conservation photographers in the making on a Conservation Kids outing. © Daniel Dietrich
A group of young conservation photographers in the making on a Conservation Kids outing. © Daniel Dietrich

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

Today’s young people will become tomorrow’s conservationists and nature photographers if, and maybe only if, they are able to get out and experience the wonders of nature. They’ll be the ones whose dollars keep camera companies innovating, whose votes protect the wild and beautiful, and whose vision and aesthetics take photography in exciting new directions if they learn to appreciate our precious natural world. But too many young people don’t have easy access to wild places and aren’t getting the transformative experiences that will inspire them to take up the challenges of documenting, advocating for, and protecting nature. That dilemma inspired Daniel Dietrich to create Conservation Kids.

Continue reading

The Web of Life

Closeup photo of a grizzly bear enjoying a salmon in the Brooks River, Katmai National Park, Alaska. The bear has the salmon it its mouth and is in the river. © Jerry Ginsberg
Grizzly bear enjoying a salmon in the Brooks River, Katmai National Park, Alaska. © Jerry Ginsberg

By Jerry Ginsberg

We humans take ourselves far too seriously. Out of habit, we allow the minutiae of our daily lives to block our ability to see the big picture. That picture is one in which our species is but one of a multitude of creatures eking out a living on the crust of this still molten rock hurtling through space. Like it or not; choose to admit it or not, we are all interrelated to some degree. As for how these ruminations connect me to my role as a nature photographer? Hang in there. I’ll get to that.

Continue reading

Showcase 2021 Winner: Kyle Moon

Photo of a Black-Capped Chickadee Stuck in Burdock, Bozeman, Montana, Showcase 2021 Judges’ Choice, Conservation © Kyle Moon
“Black-Capped Chickadee Stuck in Burdock,” Bozeman, Montana, Showcase 2021 Judges’ Choice, Conservation © Kyle Moon

Artist’s statement

This photo is special to me thanks to the community involvement in removing burdock, a local invasive species, and the associated storytelling opportunities. I’m a nature photographer, but a conservationist first. As a committee member of the Sacajawea Audubon Society here in Bozeman, Montana, I wanted to shed light on our local conservation efforts. Our “Knock out Burdock” campaign has brought many volunteers from various backgrounds together to make change in our community. My vision in taking this photograph was to raise awareness on this issue in the hope that I would encourage others to get involved and start a larger discussion. 

Continue reading

Not Losing Hope featuring Suzi Eszterhas

The Nature Photographer episode #10 on Wild & Exposed podcast

Endangered mountain gorilla (gorilla beringei) mother holding 5-month-old twin babies, Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda © Suzi Eszterhas

Wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas may occasionally get to choose from two dream jobs: jet off to Costa Rica to photograph a baby sloth born in a wine bar or jet off to Botswana to photograph a litter of newborn meerkats. But most of the time she’s waiting, putting all the pieces in place, and quietly nurturing something to fruition—whether that means staring at a termite mound for 10 days waiting for a baby to appear, working a big cat subject for two months straight, or building a book project over the course of several years.

Now she’s set her sights on making change in the nature photography industry, mentoring young female photographers through Girls Who Click, supporting gender and racial diversity in the field, and raising more than $200,000 to support conservation projects throughout the world. Join Dawn Wilson, Ron Hayes, Jason Loftus, and Suzi to hear more about these projects, how Suzi maintains her motivation, and why, as she puts it, “If you’re not learning, your career is done.”

Continue reading

Showcase 2021 Winner: Dawn Wilson

The processed legs of a bison (Bison bison) sit in a cart after being slaughtered outside of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming for wandering outside of the park boundaries. 2021 Showcase, First Runner-Up, Conservation © Dawn Wilson
The processed legs of a bison (Bison bison) sit in a cart after being slaughtered outside of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming for wandering outside of the park boundaries. 2021 Showcase, First Runner-Up, Conservation © Dawn Wilson

Artist’s statement

Back in the early days of the pandemic, I had just received notification that my home state of Colorado was considering putting stay-at-home orders in place. I was visiting Yellowstone National Park when I heard the news, so I scrambled to pack up and head home. As I left the hotel, I found a trailer of bison parts—heads on the bottom, legs missing hooves in the center, and these plastic-wrapped legs tied to the sides. It was so disturbing, yet I couldn’t help but ponder what I was seeing. In the winter, when bison leave the safety of the park and venture into the surrounding ranches, they can be slaughtered because they may transmit brucellosis to domesticated cows. It seems such a horrid thing to do to animals just looking for food away from the deep snows of Yellowstone. Seeing the fresh carcasses made my gut wrench in pain and sadness.

Continue reading

Happy New Year!!

A young moose pops up to watch some people along a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. As a resident of Estes Park, just outside of Rocky, this national park became my escape during Covid. It also became an easy place to escape to for the growing population along the Front Range during 2020
A young moose pops up to watch some people along a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. As a resident of Estes Park, just outside of Rocky, this national park became my escape during Covid. It also became an easy place to escape to for the growing population along the Front Range during 2020

Story and photos by Dawn Wilson, NANPA President

Wow, it felt great to say that. 2020 was a very long year but we made it through the challenges and hopefully came out with new knowledge and perspective.

Now let’s look forward to a new year with new opportunities.

Continue reading