Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Meridian of My DNA

My western heritage is sprinkled along settlements my ancestors created in the 1800s down the length of a route that would become the 1,100 mile U.S. 89, a “Blue Highway” stretching from Montana to Arizona.

The “Ponderosa belt,” as I call it for the dominant species of pine tree found along its length, stretches from the cusp of the Northern Rockies through Yellowstone and along my native Tetons.

It crisscrosses the Idaho-Wyoming border then drops down Bear Lake Valley and across the Utah line before jumping across into Cache Valley.  From there this ancestral spine tracks against the Wasatch Mountains as they split off from the southern Rockies.

Then it shoots straight down the high plateaus, alpine meadows, forests, and valleys of central Utah before jogging around the Grand Canyon and giving out on the last reaches of the Colorado Plateau as it spills across northern Arizona.

The roots of my longitudinal DNA never strayed more than a degree after 1847 along nearly the entire length of the 111th meridian west as it dissects the continental United States.

But Mugsy, my English bulldog and I, usually weave back and forth across this route using various scenic byways on the last leg of our annual cross-country-road-trips before collecting my daughter and two grandsons for a week of reunion along the shores of a lake in the northern Rockies.

These byways often take in one or two of the dozen or so settlements my ancestors created along the length of the meridian between 1847 and 1907.  Last year we took a scenic byway along state route 14 as it slices through alpine meadows between Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks.

This year, a different byway about an hour’s drive north will give us a glimpse of one of the world’s oldest and largest living organisms which was discovered when I was in college in the late 1960s by Dr. Burton Barnes, a forest ecologist at the University of Michigan.

Christened “The Trembling Giant” or Pando, this ancient 107-acre grove of approximately 47,000 quaking aspen trees near Fish Lake (8,800 foot above sea level) all share a singular root.  DNA tests by Utah State University geneticists confirm it is one huge clone weighing nearly 7000 tons.

Essentially all one tree, the 80,000-year-old grove is now in crisis.

In fact, USU scientists are rushing to find out why aspens are suddenly dying all over the west.  Aspens don’t grow from seeds.  The grove we’ll see in a few months are all stems off the same plant.

This is because as geneticists have learned, these trees now have three genes.  My uneducated hunch is the problem will have something to do with human activity over the last 250 years and the side-effects of both the first and the second Industrial Revolution which peaked in 2008.

The question is, “Will the far more environmentally friendly third Industrial Revolution now percolating ramp up quickly enough?”

From Fish Lake we return to U.S. 89 and drop 3,000 feet as we head up the San Pete Valley through two areas first settled among Native Americans by two of my paternal ancestors before they began to explore much further north along the route.

In fact, nearly all of my ancestors along this longitude of my DNA lived long enough to see the end of the first Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the second.

As we near the place where my grandsons live nestled on the slopes of the Wasatch, the haze of pollution often visible will be a reminder that 167 years of their ancestral DNA also lies along that same meridian.

They will be in or near their 30s when we reach the tipping point for the new Industrial Revolution now underway.  If too late for the aspens, will it be soon enough to save and restore our planet?

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