by Brooklynn Newberry

Aspen trees in fall

It was Spring of 2004 and I just woke up from a short nap. I rub my eyes and stumble over to the kitchen where my mom is stirring cooked mac n cheese. She turns her head to see me making my way down the hallway. Before I could even say hello, mother was rushing to my side to grab my arm. "I have a surprise for you", she exclaimed. My heart started beating 1,000 mph and chills ran down my spine. At the age of 6, surprises were my favorite and I couldn't be more excited to find out what kind of gift she had for me. Mother pulled my arm and drug me to the garage.

My little legs could barely keep up with her swift pace. Once we arrived at our dark, dusty garage, I began to question my mother. "What are we doing in here, mom?", I asked "It's dark and scary and makes me sneezy!". She quickly directed my attention to a bag on the counter near the far corner of the garage. I couldn't see exactly what was in the bag, so I slowly moved closer. I had to watch each step carefully in order to avoid piercing my foot on a rusty nail. Once I arrived at the bag, I could see it. A tiny goldfish was looking up at me, that I would go on to name Stanley.

Stanley and I bonded instantly. I had never had something to take care of before and I couldn't be happier. Every day, I would watch him swim and play a game where he would chase my finger around the bowl. It was nice to have someone to play with considering my parents lived in the middle of Roxborough National Park.

A goldfish (not Stanley)

Stanley's life was short. He passed away not too long after we first got him. I was devastated. As I walked to the bus stop with tears in my eyes, my father looked down at me and grabbed my hand, tight. He knelt down to be eye-level with me. Father took his other hand and wiped my tears with his thumb. He said, "Listen Boo, sometimes when one life ends, another one begins. I'll bury him outside next to the pond, so you can see what I mean when you get home from school". Father stood up and watched as I boarded the bus and rode away.

When I got home from school, I walked to the backyard where my pond was. My father was standing there with a shovel. I ran over and tightly grabbed his leg. "Dad? Is Stanley here?" I asked. He peeled my body off of him and pointed to the ground. "Look!", he said. I rubbed my eyes and followed his hand. Right before me, there it was! There was a tiny aspen tree about as tall as I was. I was confused at first, but then I remembered what my dad had said before I left this morning. When one life ends, another begins. Could this be true? Did my Stanley grow into a little tree? I smiled from ear to ear as tears kept streaming down my cheeks. I looked up at my dad and thanked him for burying Stanley because now he is a tree and I can still see him grow in a new life.

The tree became my new friend. I watched as it grew taller each year. Aspen trees grow about 25 inches each year, which is an incredibly fast rate for a tree. The tree will start changing colors in October as the temperature cools down. The leaves would be a beautiful yellow and orange color. I'd watch as they fell during late October and came back in the spring. During winter, I'd make sure Stanley's tree was always the brightest by wrapping the prettiest lights on his tree. I would take my books outside and read aloud next to the pond, hoping Stanley may still hear.

All through middle school and high school I did my homework next to that tree. I'd notice each change and smile at remembering my little fish, Stanley. As I grew up, so did my tree. Time never seems to slow down but, with older age also comes knowledge. I returned from college after a year of studying for summer break. As I pulled into the driveway, I noticed my dad out of the corner of my eye. He was next to Stanley's tree, working on the pond. I sprung out of my car and ran over to surprise him. He glanced up and immediately smiled. "Hey, what are you working on?", I asked. "Just pulling some weeds", he responded.

I looked up at the tree and noticed how big it's gotten. I started remembering the tree when it was the same size as me. "Remember when this tree appeared here right after you buried Stanley?", I asked my dad. There was a long moment of silence. My father dropped his tools and looked up at me. I couldn't tell what he was doing. He looked nervous. I quickly asked, "what is wrong?". That was the moment that my dad told me the real story about the Stanley tree. When he got home from the bus stop that day, he flushed Stanley down the toilet and planted a tree next to the pond (as he planned to do all week). When Stanley died, he didn't have the heart to tell me that Stanley was gone. He knew how much I loved my fish and seeing me sad broke his heart. He also told me, he didn't want me to find the fish bones because it would have made it worse. So, Stanley had a first-class ticket to the sewer system. Father kept this secret for years. Although Stanley did not turn into a tree, I will still always call my tree The Stanley Tree.


When I returned to school for my second year, I changed my major to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I began to have a deep interest in the environment and plants in the Rocky Mountains. I've continued to grow an interest in aspen trees and think of Stanley whenever passing through colorful aspen forests. Recently I visited my tree at my parent's house. Now that I study Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, I've had a better understanding of the environment. I noticed that the Stanley Tree didn't have many leaves on it. Some Branches were empty while other branches thrived. I realized that this is due to our hot summers and droughts near the national park. When aspen trees are exposed to hot or dry conditions, it makes it difficult for them to get the nutrients they need. Through climate change, Colorado has turned into a drier state. The lack of water is affecting aspen trees state-wide. When I was younger, I was able to closely watch the aspen tree grow. I noticed many changing details including growth patterns. I believe it is important to pay attention to the environment because it is quickly changing. We need to learn to grow with the world around us just as I grew up with my tree.

Brooklyn is a student at the University of Colorado Boulder, studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She is 22 years old and live in Superior, CO. Learn more about Brooklyn's work at her website, Brooklyn's Biology.

Photos of Aspen by Doug Dolde and goldfish by Bjwebb at Wikimedia.

by Amoi Campbell

There is something so terrible and haunting about how knotweed grows in Pennsylvania. Its pale white flowers are a sort of cursed beauty, alluring to human eyes and pollinators alike. On a late summer day you can peer into this world within our own and watch bees, ants, butterflies, and beetles shift from flower to flower of this ominous but beautiful invasive shrub. The clustered spikes of flowers pierce through the emerald green curtain of foliage. Even from a distance the delicate blossoms appear upright and modest. Sightings of white blossoms on the edges of busy streets and forested trails are frequent, giving knotweed an almost omnipresent quality.

The true nature of the weedy thicket reveals itself to those who look closely. In a well-established stand of knotweed, one can note the absence of other plants. There, only knotweed seems to flourish. Creeping into the forest on the sides of creeks, ravines, and trails, knotweed may seem inconspicuous at first.

There is an air of mystery to all the places it sinks its roots into. Strange and unexpected places overwhelmed and overtaken. Whatever grew there before becomes a distant memory of a different time and space.

As knotweed grows it transforms even the soil around it. Taking root where the tree canopy is sparse, and the woods break into clearings or trails. Sometimes it is obvious the site has been disturbed by natural forces or human construction. Under the surface, with worms as witnesses, the seeds or nodes of discord take root in Pennsylvania soil. Knotweed’s monstrous nature lies in its ability to seemingly come back from the dead, cut it down year after year and it will still grow back.

The clustered spikes of flowers pierce through the emerald green curtain of foliage.

It was a warm day for October, another day in an almost endless summer, when I learned how knotweed grows in Pittsburgh. I was searching for places to sample for my first graduate rotation project in the Kuebbing lab. Jess, the Kuebbing lab manager was accompanying me and helping me throughout this period. We were prepared but not ready for the full extent of this site. From the road we could sense that there was more than what met our eyes. Curious and cautious we decided to inspect the site further. You see, I had just begun to study the knotweed taxa for an ecology project on invasive plants and I was always looking for more knotweed patches. Taking in what I thought was a small 4-meter patch, I grew excited to sample a new location.The further I walked and the closer I looked, I realized I was horribly wrong. This wasn’t a single patch but rather a discontinuous field of knotweed with abandoned buildings and trees sprinkled in. Off that quiet road, Jess and I stumbled upon the ruins of an old church. Jess noted that the once beautiful stained-glass windows had become translucent shards scattered about the unkept yard. The broken windows and dilapidated appearance of the church surrounded by fields of overgrown weeds and strangling vines felt gothic in every sense of the word.

This mysterious scene, set out in front of me, was captivating to me as a researcher and also as a lover of horror stories. To me this was nothing short of a great and terrible thing.

The only places Knotweed was not growing on this street was the mowed edges of the road across from the church. Later, I would discover the true length of the stand. At this point I had only accounted for what was more or less the width. If knotweed could grow there it would grow there. The stalks of Knotweed were breaking apart concrete and the knotweed rhizomes were colonizing the soil deep below. The thickness and strength of those roots gave me pause on multiple occasions. Reading about the roots had not prepared me for the realities of them. It was a strange test of patience realizing we could not dig to collect dirt from the stand to study in the lab later. We were shocked at the revelation there was no soil on the surface, just concrete and a thin layer of dead plant matter resembling dirt. We had been deceived by the decay and disorder brought about by the fallen Knotweed leaves.

While sampling around the sidewalk I could see straight through the empty church’s unhinged doors to the back. It took awhile for my eyes to take it all in but when I glanced over the church again I saw it, it was unmistakable. In the back behind the church I noticed some movement. My eyes focused, the wind was blowing through knotweed.

Walking to the back of this block we found an old cemetery. The well-maintained graves were a stark contrast to the lengthy knotweed patches across the street. By that time the weather turned sour. The air was cool and the sky grey, the warm sun had hidden itself away as I stood next to that graveyard.

I walked that street in awe of the full extent of the knotweed site. I looked around myself eager to share this discovery with Jess, who had begun to capture the moment in photos. On the perimeter of the graveyard was a wall of abandoned headstones, carved with names and dates of those who had already passed. We wandered on a clean empty street across from the cemetery. Someone had taken the time to cut back the overgrowth again, and again. Yet still, on that quiet road the knotweed seemed endless. It felt like it was waiting for us to leave. The knotweed was waiting for us all to leave. Just as the knotweed inherited the church without a watchful groundskeeper to maintain the land, so too would the thicket take whatever else it could take.

I thought I understood what an invasive species was but seeing it in all its rawness was a different story, it was a horror story where few native plants would or even could survive in the end. What sites like this hint at is knotweed’s success at decreasing the diversity of plants native to Pennsylvania. Knotweed establishes early in disturbed or poorly maintained sites. Over time bamboo like stalks can take over and claim the land for its clones. This ecological horror story is not just set on this one lonely dilapidated street in Pittsburgh. It is here in my neighborhood, and if you look closely you might even see it in your own backyard.

Amoi Campbell is a post-baccalaureate fellow at University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Biological Sciences. She earned a B.S. in Biology from Howard University. Amoi's research interest include invasive plants, climate change, plant-plant interactions, plant-soil interactions, and urban ecology.

by Ian Briscoe

It was a hot and humid evening in Tequesta, Florida. The air was so dense and sticky, it was almost as if you were drowning. You could hear a pin drop on the water, which was also warm on the bottoms of my feet as I carefully, but quickly, worked my way through the guardian trees. They were surely close behind and I had to keep moving. The trees will protect me, as they always have. I am reminded to be careful within these trees in the dark, immediately slicing my hand on a barnacle as I reached out to pull myself forward. The sand crabs scatter with each step I take, and I can hear fish feeding close by. The rays of light behind me dance through the trees, creating long and eerie shadows that stretch into my vision as I glance back. The hoots and hollers of my stalkers become louder as they seemingly close the distance between us.

Do I continue through the trees that I have maneuvered so many times before? Do I take the plunge and swim away to an unknown location on the intercoastal? Surely, that would make far too much noise. I can’t climb these trees without being seen; however, I could go under them. How much longer will they chase me? A clearing between the trees opens up and I dash through quickly to the left to hide beneath the largest tree in the grove. Silence, for the moment, but as my hunters near, that quickly dissipates. The pounding of their boots on the sand, the jingle of keys in their pockets, and a few belches from all that beer they had been drinking.

They had reached the clearing, and were now within fifteen feet of my wooded hiding spot. “Where the hell did he go?” “I swear I just saw him!” The trees will protect me, as they always have. I stay beneath the tree, completely silent, completely still, listening to their voices fade away and watching the rays from their flashlights flicker across the water and sand. I’ve been here before; I feel the etchings of my initials paired with someone else's, within a carved heart on the inside of this magnificent tree. This is a place of love, not fear, and those who fear the trees become lost within them. Silence again, until I start listening, the sound of the wind whistling through the trees, the occasional splash as fish break surface, various critters nimbly navigating through the trees just as I was a moment ago. Then, the sound of slithering paired with what sounded like a tire losing air within my immediate area. This tree is not my home, and it is time for me to move on.

As I work my way back through the trees, memories of easier times flood my mind. Climbing and playing among these trees, jumping from the trees into the water, fishing and netting within the trees, catching sand crabs, trying to snag a mullet out of the water with your bare hands to see if you can create your own fable. I emerge from the grove to be greeted by a calm, cool, and consistent breeze that carries the salt from the ocean to where I am standing. The trees kept me safe, and they always have. Thank you Mangroves.

Ian Briscoe is a 24 year old transfer student from South Florida currently living in Boulder, Colorado studying Environmental Studies. Follow Ian on Instagram at @Breeeezzzyy.

Photo: Mangroves in the Florida Everglades, from Wikimedia Commons.