The Aspen, Ubuntu and Avalon

By: Avalon Housing

The recent Motivational Interviewing and Trauma-Informed Care training provided to Avalon staff by ThinkT3 and the Center for Social Innovation was very valuable for many reasons. One of the common themes that came from the training was the value and significance of community, and its inextricable link to individual success.

This prompted me to think about a recent documentary I’d seen on the Aspen tree. The Aspen’s wood is highly valued for being soft, malleable and pliable, yet unusually strong – making it a versatile and multi-functional resource. In the face of adverse weather, it is resilient to the type of warping and decay often seen in other types of wood, and is therefore preferred for construction in extreme-weather environments, from hot, steamy saunas to the bitter cold of Siberia. Aspen is also known for its curative and medicinal qualities, with its bark providing a mild analgesic effect for animals in pain.

And yet, one of the most fascinating and unique characteristics of the aspen is not the usefulness and resilience of its wood, but the way it symbolizes community.  Community is one of the most cherished and celebrated values at Avalon, and is perfectly expressed and encapsulated by the philosophy of Ubuntu, or the premise that “I am, because we are.” It’s a belief that our strengths, challenges and triumphs are tied to the relationships and communities in which we are found, and that our individual success is bound up in our success as a community. It is a principle that Avalon has embraced.  Ubuntu expresses something deep and integral about us as an organization.

Aspens are the arboreal equivalent of ubuntu. They grow in clonal colonies, huge communities of trees, with an interlinked and interwoven root system that nourishes and supports the entire community. The interwoven roots offer far greater strength and stability than the roots of a single tree, and it is precisely because the roots are interwoven and the trees are linked in community, that all each tree can provide all these benefits.

A colony of aspen can originate from a single, solitary seed, and yet that community can live for thousands of years. A colony of aspen in Utah has been dated as more than 80,000 years old – far and away the oldest living organism on earth. Of course, within the community of trees, individual trees will sprout and pass away, just as individuals will join and leave our community, but because of the root system, the community endures.

Indeed, our community not only endures, but flourishes, because we are linked together in ways that may not always been visible, but provide our community with support, stability, nourishment and mutual security. We strengthen each other in adversity, and nourish each other in our victories.

It is precisely because we are interwoven, interlinked, and interdependent, that we can be of such value and usefulness to those with whom we engage. The Aspen is an appropriate metaphor for an organization that was established in Ann Arbor – a city named after a group of trees planted here almost 200 years ago.  Just as ubuntu expresses something fundamental about Avalon’s organizational DNA and how we are tied together, perhaps the Aspen reflects something of our character, resilience, usefulness and community.

By Mark Simmonds, Adult Services Team


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