The Legend of the Quaking Aspen

When I was learning Colorado history in grade school, my teacher told me us the legend of the quaking aspens. She said it was a Ute story. The story goes something like this.

One day, the creatures of the forest learned that the Great Spirit was coming to visit them. The animals and plants did their best to make the forest ready for this great honor. All except the aspens. They were haughty, and did not fear the Great Spirit.

And the time arrived, and the forest and her creatures welcomed the Great Spirit, and in their fear and excitement they shook even as they bowed to honor their guest.

All except the aspens.

So the Great Spirit told the trees, from now on, you will always quake and tremble whenever anyone looks at you.  And quake they do, even to this very day.

There was something about this story that captured my attention. I’m not sure if it was the fact that it was a story from another culture, and when you hear such stories, you get a real sense of the kind of people they are; the things they value and the way they see the world, or if it was more the fact that there were aspens all around me when I was growing up, even on the playground of the school where I heard this story, and I thought about how often the aspens quaked.

Whenever I heard the sound of the aspens, I also thought about the Great Spirit, and I wondered if the story was as much about associating that ubiquitous sound with the Great Spirit as it was about humility.

Over time, I forgot the specific detail of the story’s conclusion, and I remembered the story to have ended with the Great Spirit forcing the aspens to quake whenever the Great Spirit was nearby.

It made me think that maybe the point of the story was really about saying the Great Spirit was everywhere. Whether you could see it or not, the aspens knew it was there, and they shook. It struck me as a beautiful way to be constantly aware of the creator’s presence, which was always all around us, which means that even though my version of the story makes little sense, I like the fact that for nearly 30 years I’ve thought about the presence of the creator nearly every time I’ve heard the sound of the rustling wind shaking the leaves of the aspens. I think any story that makes us pause and think about the world around us, and acknowledge the sacred source of all things is a pretty good story. Even if it’s a story that mostly existed only in my brain. Until now, when I’ve shared it with you.

I don’t know how authentic the original story is. As far as I have been able to tell, it was a story told by William Byers, the founder of the Rocky Mountain News, in 1873.  I’m not even sure if, at this point, its origin matters so much. After all, it’s not his version that stuck with me over all these years.