Take life slow. Live life like a bristlecone. Anonymous Hiker, Wheeler Peak Trailhead, Great Basin National Park
I met my first bristlecone pine tree several years ago when I was on a road trip between my home in Wyoming and Yosemite National Park, where I would be meeting two friends for a few days of camping and hiking. I had always wanted to visit Great Basin National Park, so I planned my route accordingly. It was curiosity that motivated me. I could not possibly imagine what would be exceptional enough about a basin of sage brush to warrant inclusion in the National Park system.
I drove into the park and began the ascent of the Snake Mountains, culminating at the trailhead near Wheeler Peak, the 13,000 foot high summit of those mountains. I was rethinking my idea of the Great Basin as being flat and boring. Since I had limited time I chose a trail that would take me to visit the bristlecone pines that grow on the slopes of the peak, one of those “nature trails” I usually hike through on my way to the more spectacular vistas.
At that elevation in mid-August it was cool, but I nevertheless had to take my time as I hiked the loop through the ancient pine trees. I paused at every sign to read it carefully, and when I had finished the loop, I began again, reading the signs as if I had to absorb as much information about those trees as I could possibly manage. It was not enough to see them; I had to know about them, to somehow understand them, as if by staring at these 3000 year old organisms long enough I would somehow take in the secrets of longevity, of stillness, of patience.
I reluctantly left the bristlecones behind and spent the night in a campground further down the slope, having discovered a new and wonderful place and trees that would continue to call to me. I have been on a kind of pilgrimage ever since, my goal being to visit every grove of bristlecone pines on the planet. Fortunately this is a realistic goal, for there simply are not very many of them. They are limited to high elevation slopes in the southwest, rarely growing below 10,000 feet. Since that first encounter I have visited bristlecones on various mountain ranges of Nevada, in Bryce Canyon National Park, and in the White Mountains of southeastern California, where the oldest tree in the world can be found.
The photo you see above was taken in those mountains. The tree is aptly named Methuselah and is believed to be the oldest tree in the world at 4800 years. Clonal organisms like the aspen I wrote about last week can be older, but bristlecones have the distinction of being nonclonal and singular, which counts for something in the study of ancient organisms.
There is no longer a sign in front of the tree. It was removed after someone tried to burn it down a few years ago, as happened with The Senator, a 3500 year old pond cypress growing in Seminole County, Florida until ten years ago, when it went up in flames at the hands of vandals. Such an act is incomprehensible to me, and if you are reading this post, it probably is to you as well.
Vandalism is not the only threat to these very old trees. A warming climate is no friend to them. They grow strong because they grow slowly. As the climate warms their range extends to lower elevations, where they are subject to pests like pine bark beetle and must compete with other trees for sunlight and nutrients. Rapid growth is the enemy of longevity. You do not need me to point out the obvious metaphor here. Take your time. Breathe deeply. Be present.
Despite my Buddhist leanings I am not sure I believe in a next life after this one. I would like it to be true, but wanting something does not make it so. Still, if it is true. . .just maybe. . .I would like to come back as a bristlecone pine. Living a long time is not so important to me as simply being still. . .to weather storms, to watch civilizations come and go, and to put all of this into perspective. There is nothing more to be done than to stand and watch, to bear witness, and to cling to the slopes of the mountain, patient and still, watching.