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For the love of trembling trees

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I hear the wind among the trees Playing celestial symphonies; I see the branches downward bent, Like keys of some great instrument.

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
American poet (1807–1882)

There is a melody that sings through these leaves that dance and twirl like so many ballerinas in the faintest breeze, their delicate fluttering the sound of some distant waterfall. No, it’s not a maple, birch, or oak tree. This tall slender beauty, with its whitish bark and its long-stemmed dainty leaves that turn a shimmering gold in autumn, is that of a trembling or quaking aspen – a common sight throughout the Canadian countryside.

And now, after driving almost an hour north of Winnipeg to a place where the forest meets the sky, they stand on either side of the narrow dirt road, waving their greeting as I make my way to our cabin retreat located on the small peninsula that extends into Lake Winnipeg.

As if on cue, I open the windows of my car, allowing their song to penetrate the silence, and inhale the delicious smells of pine, sand, and shore. Immediately my body relaxes, leaving behind the clamour of the city to embrace the promise of this time.

It’s here, in the company of these trembling aspens, that the magic of nature unfolds. Time evaporates into breezes and birdsongs. On the best of summer days, I take a front-row seat to a view where glass-smooth water mingles with a blue horizon, playing host to pelicans that land in its stillness like a fleet of miniature floatplanes. On hot, humid nights, fireflies flirt in the midnight air for the audience of eager eyes behind the screened-in porch. And all the while, it’s the music of the aspens that plays the soundtrack of these seemingly surreal surroundings.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that such a melodious tree, the second most widely distributed tree species in the world, should be the subject of ancient folklore seeking answers to its trembling.

Some of the most prominent legends from the Near East associate its shivering with events from the Bible. One claims that Judas the traitor hanged himself from its branches, leaving the tree forever cursed to tremble. Another says it shivers in recollection because Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross of aspen.

Although these age-old storylines may be overshadowed by modern explanations that cite the tree’s unique leaf structure as the reason for its quaking, I can’t help but listen to this leaf-song as a response to a mystery greater than my imagination – one that isn’t bound by careful reasoning, or forever cursed by a doleful narrative.

When I see the flutter of aspen leaves in the breeze and hear their music in the distance, I’m issued a divine invitation to enter a grander story, beckoning me to follow its beauty into places where redemption has the final word.

Truly, these are the “celestial symphonies” that play for me among the aspens, reclaiming my heart, refreshing my spirit – “the keys of some great instrument.” Can you hear it?

—Jan Woltmann is a Winnipeg writer who earned an MA in Christian studies from Providence Theological Seminary. She and her husband enjoy the company of their grown children and are endlessly amused by their new puppy.

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