All it takes is one gust of wind to wake up Pando. As the sleeping giant stirred to life, I stopped in my tracks, barely a quarter mile into my summer afternoon hike, watching as its leaf-speckled branches swing back and forth with each passing breeze.
Up until a few weeks before my three-mile jaunt, I had never heard of Pando. It was the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, and like most people I was going stir-crazy and needed more fresh air than what my Salt Lake City neighborhood could provide. During an internet search for day hikes in southern Utah, I stumbled upon the quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) located about 40 miles south of Richfield, the nearest town, and about 200 miles from my home.
Known as the “Trembling Giant,” Pando is more than just your average arbor. Widely considered the world’s largest tree with one vast root system, the aspen clone is also one of the largest living organisms on the planet. Spanning roughly 106 acres within Fishlake National Forest, a sprawling patch of greenery situated in the High Plateaus of south-central Utah, Pando weighs more than 6,600 tons and contains approximately 47,000 genetically identical stems (or branches), experts say.
Pando, which in Latin translates to “I spread,” is so massive that satellite imagery shows the outline of the clone in stark contrast with the rest of the surrounding national forest; its complex network of roots is so vast that it tunnels beneath Utah State Route 25, a winding two-lane highway that slices through Pando’s center.
Its superlatives and sheer grandeur have also forced it into the spotlight, particularly by the news media, which in recent years has spilled plenty of ink (both digital and otherwise) about Pando and the possibility that it’s dying—although no one knows for certain how or why or if that’s even the case. Some scientists suggest deer and bark beetles have been gnawing away at saplings, stifling their growth, while others blame old age. (No one knows Pando’s exact age, with some estimates dating it to the end of the last ice age, or about 25,000 years ago, and others going as far back as 80,000 years.) And yet, no two sources reach a consensus about Pando’s fate and whether this magnificent organism really is knocking on death’s door.
Seeking the truth about this elusive giant led me to Lance Oditt, the founder and executive director of Friends of Pando, a nonprofit that’s been educating the public about Pando while also supporting research and preservation of the aspen since 2019. Oditt, a photographer who considers himself a “citizen scientist,” first experienced Pando several years before creating the organization, and he immediately sensed the importance of conserving the hulking giant, even if its fate isn’t yet sealed.
After my hike, I drove a few miles north along Route 25 to Fish Lake Lodge, a large log structure with adjacent cabins built nearly a century ago overlooking Fish Lake, to meet up with Oditt. Over the past two summers, he and a team of volunteers have taken on the arduous task of photographing every square inch of Pando. Called the Pando Photographic Survey, the project involves using a range of 360-degree cameras (think Google Street View, but minus cars) and traveling on foot to capture the aspen’s more than 100 acres. Once the photographic survey goes live early next year, it will be the largest photographic record of the tree, containing thousands of photographs stitched together, and will allow anyone with an internet connection free access to explore Pando virtually. Embedded metadata (including things like location and route information) will also give scientists from around the world a way to study it from afar; all of this data will serve as a baseline for the aspen clone that researchers can use to track its evolution over time, creating a scientific record.
“The photographic survey is important, as it provides a way for scientists to monitor changes in this remarkable tree over time,” Oditt says. “Once published, scientists can study a location or area just as if they were there; they can also gather coordinates and go back and shoot that location to compare how it changes. For the tree lovers and the general public, we know that when people have an immersive experience with something, they’re more likely to want to care for it, and share why it’s important to them. We want to help scientists, and we want to give people who wouldn’t get to experience Pando the chance to see it—from wherever they are in the world.”
Each year, about 300,000 people visit Pando and the surrounding area in person. Inside Fish Lake Lodge's expansive dining hall, Oditt shows me one of the 8K cameras used for the project, mounted onto a custom-built portable rig. For weeks, a team of about 25 volunteers had been logging eight-hour days lugging this and similar cameras to 8,600 locations across 186 routes that each average about one-fifth of a mile, which Oditt carefully mapped out on his computer. He handed me a printout tracing the completed routes and the 20 percent that remain to be photographed. He estimated that as of my July visit he and his team had taken around 7,300 photos, with about 50 images shot per route. Each individual image has the capacity to capture a 360-degree photo of the forested surroundings, from the blue sky to the forest floor.
“We have an enormous opportunity to take multimedia tools and use them in a beneficial way,” he says. “We want to make sure that scientists and institutions know about this resource, that it is freely available, and that the models and methods and materials are freely available and, in a way that can be built upon.”
Oditt likens the photographic survey to “an inventory.”
“It will provide a comprehensive view of the tree at the ground level that could be visited as if you were standing there and can be revisited on any scale from a single location to a section, a route or a region,” he says.
Oditt is hopeful that the survey will open up new opportunities to study the clone and how it changes over the course of its lifetime. Scientists can monitor the aspen and see any visual signs of growth as well as any degradation. Currently, if they want to study Pando, they have to travel to Utah and visit it in person, but soon they’ll be able to examine it from anywhere in the world. A scientist can plug in the metadata of a particular tree within the clone and be taken directly to that tree without having to navigate the entire forest virtually.
“[Prior to Friends of Pando], no one had documented Pando,” Oditt says. “Arguably, the scale of the tree and physical challenges of the land played a role—how do you document 106 acres of land spread across a high mountain basin that spans almost 400 feet of elevation change and has a 30 percent grade in some places? Then, how to break up the land mass into meaningful units for study and enjoyment?”
Oditt and his team of volunteers experienced that firsthand as they set out to photograph Pando. In addition to its sheer size, they were met with other obstacles—say a cabin or a random woodshed nestled among the trees—with each route taking anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours to completely document.
“It’s like playing a big game of Tetris,” he says.
Back in his cabin each evening, Oditt uses computer software to edit that day’s photos, adding new pieces to the Pando puzzle. He has multiple backup drives in place in case his computer crashes, diminishing any risk that years’ worth of data could be lost. He also uses editing software to correct any images that might need it.
“We shoot everything in raw and 360, so the sun is always in the shot,” he says. “You have six lenses per camera, and because of the sunlight, images can end up with a sort of haze where it is overexposed. Back at my computer, I can make adjustments to make the final image useful for study.”
Later that evening, Oditt invited me to attend a community forum hosted by Friends of Pando in Richfield, a 40-mile drive from Pando and the nearest city. When I got to Richfield’s city hall, several dozen people had already taken their seats, including the former mayor; students from nearby Snow College, a community college that’s involved in the photographic survey; and members of the community who are curious about Pando. Over the course of the evening, a wide range of speakers talked about the aspen, including Kirk Henrichsen, a local landscape painter who grew up visiting Pando and Fishlake and has created a number of artworks inspired by the tree.
“People drive past Pando going 45 or 50 miles per hour and don’t even know what they’re passing,” Henrichsen says. “They need to stop, look and listen at the beauty surrounding them.”
During the forum, I learned more about Pando’s history and how botanists Burton Barnes and Jerry Kemperman were the first to identify it as a single organism after examining aerial photographs and conducting land delineation (basically, tracking its borders). They revealed their groundbreaking discovery in a 1976 paper.
Today, perhaps the person who knows the most about Pando’s genetics is Karen Mock, a molecular ecologist at Utah State University in Logan. She and three other scientists ground the aspen’s leaves into a fine powder and then extracted DNA from the dried samples. “When we started our research, I was expecting that it wouldn’t be one single clone,” as is the case with other systems, Mock says. “I was wrong. Pando is a ginormous single clone.” They published their findings in a 2008 study. The group also confirmed that this quaking giant is male, creates pollen and constantly regenerates itself by sending new branches up from its root system in a process called “suckering.”
“The original seed started out about the same size as an aphid,” Mock says. “It’s tiny, and to think that it started this one little tree, its roots spreading and sending up suckers to become one vast single clone.”
Their research has forever changed the way that the scientific community approaches Pando and helped raise public awareness of this unique clone growing in southern Utah while providing it additional protection. For example, in the time since Friends of Pando was formed, the organization has fixed numerous broken fences that were allowing deer access to the tree.
Fast-forward to fall, and now Pando’s leaves have turned their magnificent shade of yellow and fallen to the ground, blanketing the trails that I had hiked earlier in the summer. Oditt tells me he is deep into the onerous task of stitching together the thousands of images shot during the summer and connecting them one by one into what will eventually become the photographic survey. He plans to complement that project with Pando: The World Tree, a virtual land art installation combining video, still images and audio, in which people can experience the tree using their mobile devices.
“That we are doing this in 360 means people can experience the tree without having to visit Utah,” Oditt tells me over the phone.
Friends of Pando also offers a laundry list of educational programming, from public talks to artist residencies. But for right now, Oditt trains his focus on the photographic survey.
“It’s a challenge, because something like this has never been done before,” he says. “What we learn from Pando can influence how we approach the next biggest tree we find. Pando deserves big and long-term thinking. I think there’s a lot of good that can come from studying Pando.”