Ancient Bristlecones Five Millenia Old

a lone bristlecone pine against the sunset of a white mountain night

Photograph by Bill Shupp

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Nearly 5,000 years ago, carried on the winds of what is now California’s Mojave Desert, or perhaps in the beak of a Clark’s Nutcracker, a single seed from a bristlecone pine planted itself high in the White Mountains. The year was 2848 BC.

Two hundred years later, the Egyptians began building the pyramids. Another two centuries would pass before the first slab of Stonehenge has placed. A millennium would come and go before Moses lead his people from Egypt. Rome and Greece would rise and fall, Buddha would die, and Jesus’ short life would pass, flipping the calendar from BC to AD.

London is built and grows into the world’s largest city as oceans are crossed, gravity is realized, machines are invented, and eventually the United States is established. Pioneers, settlers and mountain men explore the young country’s western mountains, and on to California, which soon after becomes a state.

84 years later Donald Rusk Currey is born. The year is now 1934. Over his lifetime, he would become a professor of geology, a Ph.D., and the man known to the world as having killed the oldest living thing in the world.

Over all this time, while the world was spinning ever effortlessly, forests came and went, continents drifted slowly apart, civilizations died and babies were born, a tree named Prometheus slowly grew around 10,000′ high on the slopes of the White Mountains, in what is now known as the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Not particularly tall, and like his fellow ancient pines, with little foliage, he lived like a balding old wise man, stalwart and motionless in the wind and snow of the region he found quite suitable to call home for nearly five millennia.

From his vantage point, Prometheus could look out over his fellow bristlecones, always their elder. Below him his cousins, the foxtail pine, mingled with pinyons and junipers. He looked ever onward across the valley to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, watched them drape in snow for long winters and thaw again, rushing rivers and waterfalls down into the lower elevations come spring. He and Mt. Whitney, California’s highest peak, must have stared longingly endless at one another, two venerable friends never quite able to trade stories from back in the good old days.

two purple cones, the female cones from a Bristlecone pine, hang from the end of a branch
The female cone of a Bristlecone pine.

He watched as Indians sought bighorn sheep and elk in the area for food. He stood there, looking down, as Americans moved into the area, built the towns of Lone Pine, Big Pine and Bishop. Those towns traded small wooden shacks for McDonalds and RV parks and powerlines over the years, yet there he was, living in a world otherwise virtually unchanged.

Bristlecone pines are not particularly majestic upon first site. Unlike the redwoods, they are not unusually tall or large. Their trunks are gnarled, their bark often shed completely, they stand, writhing like the stone snakes of Medusa after having seen themselves in the mirror. Often they have only one or two branches which still hold needles.

But upon closer inspection, even if you ignore the awesomeness that is their potential age, they are beautiful in ways no other tree can be. Their cones, when young, fresh and closed, are nearly purple, small bristles extrude, giving the trees their name. Their needles form bunches much like the brush mothers use to clean their babies’ bottles, and when you run your fingers back them they pop back into place as their smooth leaves escape your grasp. The fact that they go bald only makes them all the more attractive, in the way that some aging actors manage to improve with time.

two thick ancient bristecone pines
Photograph by Rick Goldwaser

In 1964, Donald Rusk Currey was a graduate student studying Ancient Bristlecones, hoping to glean information from their tree rings to provide him more information on the Little Ice Age, a period of a few hundred years when the earth was significantly colder than it is now or was in the Middle Ages.

Studying tree after tree, Currey became convinced that he was among the oldest living things on the planet when he stumbled into what is now termed the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. At 30 years old, and long before the Internet age where information is more than abundant, he was researching an area which had already been studied thoroughly by scientists when he found a particularly compelling specimen of Pinus longaeva (the scientific name for these elders), which he would soon find out was the one and only Prometheus.

Scientists can use a tool called a borer, which allows them to effectively extract a sample from a living tree, giving them access to counting its rings without the need to fell the tree entirely. So Currey stood, looking at Prometheus, and decided to do.

Except that old Prometheus was not interested in being sampled. Aside from the occasional wildlife which might scurry up his bows or pick at his needles, he was not accustomed to other living things taunting him in such a manner.

Currey attempted to extract a sample four times, failing each time, Prometheus’ thick skin causing two borers to break completely. Frustrated, Currey called his associates with the National Forest Service, asking to cut the tree down completely, in the name of science. The permission he sought was granted, and so on August 6th, 1964, just a few birthdays shy of his 5000th birthday, the mighty Prometheus fell.

Donald Currey is not a murderer. If the tree were a human, at best it would be considered unintentional manslaughter. He didn’t know the age of the tree. He was surely shocked, and in past interviews the remorse he shows for what he’d done is evident.

the limbs, needles and cones of a Bristlecone pine
Photograph by Jimmy Thomas

Still, with the help of the government organization charged with protecting the forests, he did cut down and kill the oldest known living thing on the planet. He would go on to lead a very successful career as a geographer and professor. It would take a few years for news of what he’d done to reach the public, a small outcry of shock and astonishment would come and go, but really only a small segment of the population would care enough to want some type of accountability from Currey or the Forest Service. None would be had.

Such seems to be the continuing story of mankind. We destroy a world which cannot hold us accountable for our actions. But Prometheus was not the only Ancient Bristlecone, and so nature does what it does best: proves us wrong.

After Prometheus fell, a tree only a few decades younger known as Methuselah would hold the record as the oldest single living thing on earth, and in 2013 an even older bristlecone would be discovered in the same area. Time goes on, new trees are born every day, and there’s always a chance that some seedling taking root today will live long after humanity has been ejected from Mother Earth.end of article

Photograph by Bill Shupp