Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
–As You Like It, II. i. 12
I’m 20+ miles outside the Inyo County town of Big Pine, itself about 15 miles from Bishop, past the Eastern Sierra into the White Mountains, about to make a personal, long-overdue hajj. I’ve come to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest to hike the 4-mile loop to the ancient Methuselah Grove and photograph the trees—you know the ones, I’m sure. You’ve seen the pictures of bizarre twisted limbs, set starkly against vivid cobalt skies, weathered spiky wood with precious little greenery in sight, clinging somehow to a rocky perch that seems completely alien. Perhaps you’ve wondered why they look that way, or maybe how—or whether–they could possibly still be alive. The answers turn out be more complicated, and more interesting, than you might think.
The trail takes off from the Schulman Visitors’ Center, reached by a long, steep, and very snaky road marked by one terrifying dropoff after another. It’s a crisp early October day, and there’s a dusting of fine snow in spots, delivered a few days ago by the first storm of the season. The air is unbelievable: cold and thin, of course, but infused with something unexpected, a scent of mystery and spirit of defiance. After gathering my gear, lunch, and water, I head into the forest. Not 50 yards in, I am lost, solidly entranced by root and limb and bough.
At first I speak to them like they were children, or skittish horses. I place my palm flat against the complex bark, petting their gnarled flanks as if to comfort them. No, I tell them, I can’t take your picture, not today. Maybe next time, I say soothingly, though in truth I have no defined plan to return. There are so many, at every turn, I just can’t photograph them all. Somehow I have a notion that the ones I pass by might feel neglected, and I am compelled to explain, assuage, apologize. I feel terrible and shamed, as if I’ve failed to bring enough snacks for everyone and been called out by the teacher. The trees stand silent, twisty and reproachful.
Then I think about it, and realize how truly absurd this is, on so many levels: these trees are the oldest living things on earth, many over 4500 years old, and I a mere half-century. The Great Basin bristlecone pine, one of three closely related cousins (Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine and foxtail pine are the others), is famous for its longevity. These very trees were alive in the time of pharaohs, the great flood of the Old Testament, Socrates and Homer, and the empires of Genghis Khan, Alexander the great, and all the Caesars. Who, indeed, am I to offer solace to these ancient ones—or to impute emotion to them? I am a mayfly to them, my short and hurried life buzzing by unnoticed.
Later, it feels more like seeking—an osmosis of wisdom I hope to entice from their skin to mine. Tell me how it is you have survived these long millennia, I ask them. Tell me of the things you’ve seen, the things you’ve heard, the things you’ve dreamed. Tell me what secrets the wind has carried here from every unknown place, and what enigmas you’ve discovered as your roots went seeking in the earth. I think of all the human history their lives have spanned, and I am filled with questions. But I release them in the wind, irrelevant and transitory in the timeframe of these trees. What matters here, in the thin chill air at 10,000 feet above sea level, is pure survival. This environment is extreme, with few species that exist here full-time, but the bristlecones have used extremity to their advantage.
The brutal cold keeps bark beetles from reproducing in great numbers. Dry air and scant precipitation inhibit fungi that seek to rot hard-earned earlywood and latewood. Slow growth produces very narrow rings, with large amounts of small-celled winterwood. Heartwood so densely packed gives no space for flame to catch and bloom, and there is no undergrowth for it to feed on in the first place; poor soil offers few nutrients to other plants that might make a home in this isolated place. Scarce oxygen at these heights also deters fire, as does the trees’ wide spacing. Harsh, violent winds beat back less hardy competitors, while the bristlecone sapling, once upright, contorts and conforms itself to embrace the icy blasts.
Bristlecones are also masters of efficiency—a mere 3-5% of a tree’s needles are replaced each year, compared to 25% or more for other conifers, requiring far less energy. Older needles are tougher, and so better at surviving drought than younger, moister ones, a huge plus in this arid, windblown latitude. They grow slowly, these old ones—one inch in diameter per century where conditions are particularly cruel. An odd tidbit worth pondering is that bristlecone pines that grow in easier conditions, where there is more moisture or the soil is less impoverished, live less than half as long as those sited in the least favorable spots. Such, indeed, may be the uses of adversity: the easy life we hold as our ideal, full of comfort and indulgence, may not end the richest.
About an hour in, I reach the famous grove—thought to be over 4700 years old, Methuselah is not identified ‘in order to protect it’, says the brochure I picked up at the trailhead. I find this unspeakably sad, mostly because I recognize its truth: there are those who would despoil it if they knew its name. What is it about our species that compels us to destroy the things we don’t understand, to mark our presence in their flesh, or kill them and stash their relics on our mantels? Is it envy, fear, avarice, or some other impulse that drives destruction in place of inquiry and learning? I am disappointed, but in truth every tree in the grove is more amazing than the next—and it matters not a bit that one might be a few years older than another. Each one is Methuselah, at heart a concept rather than a label. Again I find myself unmoored, tiny, and insignificant, in a landscape where the word ‘unique’ has lost all meaning. My camera, my awe, my appreciation are not enough and it cuts me deeply: how can I possibly know these complex creatures in a few short hours, let alone do them any sort of justice? I try anyway, shooting frame after frame, hoping for just one good inspiration.
One of the most interesting things about the bristlecones is that, though they are immensely old, they do not age—or more properly, they do not senesce. That is to say they are not prone to the various degenerations we and other creatures endure as we get older, such as grey hair, stiff joints, diminished reproductive capacity, and so on. Scientists have studied them extensively, and found that even very old bristlecone pines produce new growth at the same rate as young saplings. What is more, their telomeres, the ‘end caps’ of each chromosome, do not get markedly shorter as they age—unlike ours, and those of nearly every other living thing. Telomere shortening is thought to limit the number of times a cell can reproduce itself, which requires copying its DNA precisely. An end to cell reproduction eventually means death. Could the bristlecones, at least in theory, be immortal? In fact, they do not die of their own accord; they must be killed.
Another odd thing about these trees is that, though they live at high altitudes where the atmosphere is thin and solar radiation levels high, they do not suffer from genetic mutations—no damage to their DNA that could send errors down the generations till the code becomes unreadable, or one too many misplaced letters spell disaster.
But what makes these trees so famous, and so picturesque, is wind training combined with ‘sectored architecture’. Every bristlecone is composed of semi-independent sectors, each with its own root, water transport system, and sapwood. Death of a root, whether from exposure, disease, or injury, cuts off nourishment to the sapwood in its sector, which then dies off. Large amounts of pitch deposited during this process preserve wood against heart rot and reduce water loss. Instead of falling away and leaving a blank void, the dead segments stay in place amid the living, their dense golden wood shining like lanterns amid spare green boughs. Remaining sectors, roots intact, continue growing. The gnarled, contorted trunks and asymmetric limbs that adorn postcards, calendars, and T-shirts are the result.
Despite these many adaptations, the ancient bristlecones face an uncertain future. Like many other species, they are threatened by global climate change. The chill that keeps bark beetles at bay is fading, and warming could also allow fungi to proliferate. This small alteration in the system may be all it takes to tip the balance. Like the polar bears, bristlecones are already at the limits of their habitat, with no higher or colder haven left on earth. As I complete my hike, I find myself talking to the trees again, this time apologizing for our carelessness and vowing that we will make things right again. I want these ancient ones to live on, clinging to their inhospitable slopes and forming to the wind’s desires. I want to know they will be here to witness more of history, and impart their hard-won wisdom to future generations—both conifer and human. Who knows what might be learned, to the benefit of all? I take another breath of that enchanted air, filling my lungs with infinite scent, and head toward the car. I will return, I promise them, and honor each and every one.
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