A Walk with the Oldest Trees on Earth

Bristlecone 1

Schulman

You’re shorter than I expected.
It’s not unusual
for things to fall
short
– as you are old.

Icy snow crunches.

The other sound
is the effort of breathing this air:
parched and uncharitably thin

Yet there is life
in your skin
in the fleshy rawness
of whorls
and strips
and ridges
of deep ochre russet
glistening under wet snowmelt
– I want to touch

And there’s something
– it looks like joy –
in those twisted limbs
grasping at the blue above,
extending like a reveler’s arms
in the soft autumn light.

In the thickness of your hips
there’s a rhythm
as though you’re dancing.

As though the restless wind
cascading over that naked hill there,
careening down the gentle slope to wrest
the clothes from my skin
moves you too.

 

 

It must have been the low season, because when we arrived around midday the car park had an abandoned, post-apocalyptic feel about it.

A few people milled around in red parkas and blue windcheaters drinking coffees in takeaway cups. A small group clustered around the door to the visitor’s centre, stomping footprints into the snow. We had arrived at the Schulman Grove, where the bristlecones are.

Bristlecones are a species of pine in the genus Pinus, which includes the Pinus Longaeva.  The Longaeva are among the oldest life forms on earth and the oldest individual trees known to humans*. One bristlecone pine, hidden in a protected location deep within the Schulman Grove, is 5,065 years old.

The Schulman Grove sits atop the White Mountain range, in the rainshadow of California’s Sierra Nevada. White Mountain is a high desert landscape of rocky, permeable soil and air that sucks the moisture from your skin. This environment is perfect for bristlecone pines, which thrive in conditions many other species find inhospitable.

Bristlecone 2
I had wanted to see bristlecones ever since I’d first heard about them on a RadioLab podcast a few years earlier. In an episode called ‘Oops’, they recounted the story of an American graduate student named Donald R. Currey. In the 1960s he was researching the Little Ice Age using dendrochronology (tree ring dating), taking core samples from old trees.

He took an interest in a particular bristlecone pine called Prometheus: a dense, gnarled tree that he believed may be quite old. When his efforts to confirm this by taking core samples were frustrated, he requested permission from the Forest Service to fell the tree. Believing that Prometheus was of little significance, permission was granted, and in 1964 they chopped it down. When they sectioned the tree and sent it off for analysis they discovered Prometheus was the oldest known individual tree on earth, at 4,844 years old.  Oops.
No doubt a very painful experience for Currey, and an unhappy legacy to leave behind. Happily, Currey went on to have a successful academic career in geology. And in 2012, only 8 years after Currey’s death, scientists aged a bristlecone in the Schulman Grove at 5,065 years.

I don’t know what I expected, coming to visit these old trees, but it wasn’t what I found.

Schulman Grove isn’t the mountain dreamer’s idea of a forest.

There is no peaty smell of life, no sheltered canopy to hide beneath. No sweet bird calls or soft patchwork of cushioning needles underfoot. No soaring pines to be seen.

It is an austere place, where needles of alpine wind pierce the desolate, rocky voids between gnarled trunks, and humans find refuge in buildings and the soft warmth of one another.

We walk along the designated pathways, shoes crunching on the icy snow. In front of us, children cling hungrily to their parents’ thighs.

The trees themselves are diminutive. From where I stand they don’t look taller than fifteen metres. In all those years, how did they grow so small?

Their greying branches throw jagged, choppy shadows upon us as they reach plaintively towards a pale blue sky. These trees are not towering giants. They do not soar and pierce that sky. They do nothing so frivolous or impractical.

Each bristlecone’s warped, twisted trunk is a hardening against. An act of self-preservation, tortuous and stoic. Flesh-like whorls of brown and orange bark swirl into intricate patterns that speak of a softness long gone. Like skin stripped, limbs contorted.

Bristlecone 5

Bristlecone 4

I fear that if I reach out to touch it, it will say no. There is no softness in its bark, nothing gentle, nothing to lean into. It is ferociously, indifferently independent.

And yet, despite the exposure and the wind, the human impression of violence and the twisted trees, this place feels somehow at ease.  We walk silently, or quietly at least, as though complicit in some unspoken agreement that this is no place for anything as ephemeral as words. Anything as inadequate when faced with the reality of five thousand years.  Anything so pitifully ill-equipped to weather the storms they’ve seen, such desperate summers, the depths of winter so cold, so wind-torn.

There is a word for this, and it is humbled.

And even humbled doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of simultaneous smallness and enormity, the expansive sense of the sky, the scoured mountains, the rolling slopes, the high Sierras like a white oasis in the distance. It cannot capture the disarming sense of kinship, looking up in awe, then stepping back for perspective because the contained energy of this tree is completely overwhelming. Trying to grasp its tenacity, to comprehend the joyous agony in those limbs, the grim revelling, arms outstretched, dancing, pleading, the retreat, the deeply internal nature of a life lived for five thousand years.

How can you learn from a tree?

But you can, because they hold you, somehow, without touching, and even the leafless ones whisper their wisdom. It flies on the breeze and whistles calmly on a still day, like a restless flaneur.

On the other side of the road, brown treeless undulations roll down towards hot desert plains, where we live.

*As opposed to clonal trees, which are generally much older.

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