Survival Tips from Trees

Longevity, by the Pinus Longaeva: Advice for Living

Bristlecone 2Have you ever heard of biomimicry? I came across this concept last month when I was reading about Marilyn Cornelius*.

Biomimicry looks at the complex patterns, evolutionary adaptations and survival strategies adopted by the natural world to find solutions to human challenges.

I like the idea of biomimicry, because it institutionalizes an appreciation and analysis of these patterns, and seeks to apply their ancient wisdom to the complex decisions we face today.  This is not a new concept.  Humans have long looked to nature’s cycles for guidance – just look at traditional medicine.  But biomimicry legitimizes these ideas and presents them to today’s change makers and business owners, encouraging them to look not only towards human theories and paradigms for direction, but also to the earth.

When we visited the Schulman Grove in California I was overwhelmed by the economy, the restraint and sheer grit of the the bristlecone pines. Known for their longevity – the oldest in the grove is 5,065 years old, the oldest known individual tree on earth – I wondered what their secret was.  If you were a bristlecone, what would be your advice for life?

Maybe this?

Be adaptable

Bristlecone pines have adapted to survive and thrive in some of the most desolate, inhospitable landscapes on earth. They seek out the faraway places where few others venture, which means they don’t have to compete for limited resources as most other species simply can’t survive there.

Their adaptability also means that when times get tough they have the internal resources to hunker down, adjust to changed circumstances and survive.


Learn to love your own company

Because they live in such infertile, water-poor environments, bristlecones have to learn to be alone. But they reap the benefits with access to all the sun, water and space they need to flourish.


Make do with less

Bristlecones know how to economise and make the most of what they’ve got. They’re not afraid of a little dry spell.  Their shallow, branched root systems, waxy needles and thick cuticles ensure that the tree absorbs and retains as much life-giving water as possible in their desert habitat.


Respect water

The bristlecone’s roots, needles and indeed entire structure is designed to minimise water loss through transpiration, and maximize uptake through a wide network of shallow roots. This seems to be their major design imperative.  We all need water to survive.


Go slow

Bristlecone pines take everything slow. They grow slowly – some years they don’t even grow enough to add one ring to their trunk. The reproduce and regenerate slowly. Even their needles can stay green for up to 30 years before they need to grow new ones. In this way they save energy and conserve strength for the lean years.


Be hardcore

Bristlecone wood has more in common with rock and ice than your average tree trunk. It is so dense that it’s eroded by wind, rain and freeze-thaw cycles, just like stone.

This density protects it against invasion by insects, fungi and rot.


Know when to cut your losses

When a bristlecone is damaged by fire, drought, lightning strikes or storms, the affected bark and tissue simply dies and is sectioned off from the rest of the tree. These sections no longer require nutrients, so valuable resources can be directed towards nourishing the living tree, rather than repairing broken bits.



*She’s an Environmental Science PhD doing interesting work at the nexus of climate change, education and wellness. Her approach incorporates biomimicry, behavioural sciences, design thinking and even meditation to help leaders make innovative, authentic decisions that benefit the planet and its people. Very cool.


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