Get our newsletters

Chatterbox: Of an aspen


There was a pretty amazing young woman who came of age in the 1970s and proceeded, without too much of a plan, to take the road less traveled – very less traveled.

Most of her roads weren’t roads at all, not even in the least literal sense. Jean Aspen lived up to the name she chose for herself, weathering storms but using few resources.

Aspen trees have several unique properties. Though producing soft wood, they are relatively strong, aren’t as flammable as other trees, don’t splinter as easily, are flexible, and their bark and leaves have healing properties. She chose her name from them for none of these reasons, but because they change more than most trees do. Most interesting, and counter to Jean Aspen’s qualities, aspens completely establish one single grove root system before sending up even one sprout; Jean usually proceeded with few plans.

Raised by an adventurous mother who was also a well-known wilderness author, Jean did, throughout her adult lifetime, a great many things that were adventurous, foolish, even risky and impulsive; she also had a few close calls. Ultimately, she gained great skills and managed well.

Taking a break from college, she and her boyfriend went to Alaska for an adventure. They nearly died once, but triumphed by watching the flora and the fauna and learning their seasons, usefulness and renewal cycles. The young couple carefully used only what they needed with the greatest caution and sensitivity. Even the smallest of animals were respected, and their feeding and breeding cycles became the calendar by which she and her boyfriend harvested and survived.

Their story is a long one, which includes marriage, adventures close to the nature they loved, joy, risk, success and – during one of their stays in civilization – divorce. Through it all, she carried on, following her dreams, bearing her burdens and finding salvation in the wilds.

She eventually remarried and had one son, Lucas. The family spent much time living “not off the land, but with it” in the beautiful wilderness of Alaska, devoted to all which mothered them. Lucas, sadly, predeceased his parents, dying just before the birth of his own son. She shared that only those who have lost a child can understand “the depth of pain it entails” but stressed the need to continue to see the beauty of life.

She hoped to inspire others to be strong and have a devotion to this beautiful planet that sustains all of us, to inspire in others that same understanding and camaraderie that she felt with the earth. She was passionate about how we treat each other and had an admirable unity with the wild. She respected the earth because of its gentle and forgiving generosity in sharing its natural wealth with us.

Respectful of that world, she left few marks upon the planet. She wrote four books about her personal/family adventures, made three documentaries, and also drew sketches, took photos and video footage. In two of her films, “ Arctic Daughter: A Lifetime of Wilderness” and “Rewilding Kernwood,” her narrations are stellar, speaking eloquently and softly with deep insight.

After decades of living not just off the grid but as close a part of Earth’s fauna as possible, her simple opinions resonate as enchanted lore ... each a soulful insight describing humanity as just one simple, natural component of the complex Gaia, and of the Gaia as magical. What she shares from her heart is quotable truth, the stuff of which revelation is made.

“The nature of life is change …” she says, “It’s a hard lesson to learn. Through evolution or cataclysm, life takes away everything we think we are and gives us the opportunity to recreate ourselves.

“It is my deepest hope that, in sharing our life here (the wilderness), we will inspire others … to live consciously in their own lives, to find things of beauty and value to invest in, to pay attention to the … blooming of the flower, to the sound of flowing water, to the gifts of everyday life.

“It is in recognizing our unity and … our one-ness with all living beings that we will step out of the insanity that is driving us to extinction.”

Our own extinction … We must all work to feel the truth and profundity in this insightful remark. We must make peace with our planet, even at the cost of our many pleasures and vanities.

Extinction is permanent … even when it’s us going extinct. To know, love and honor the earth can help make the imperative improvements – permanently.