The Ancient Bristlecone Pines

By Golden Webb

More than 100 years before desert kings moved into lower Egypt to found the dynasty of the Two Lands, while priests in Sumer still raised prayers to Ninhursag from the top of ziggurats, a bristlecone pine seedling was poking out of the dolomite of an austere mountain range in the Great Basin. Already ancient by the time of Christ, it stands today in a grove of its kind on the crest of the White Mountains of Eastern California. Its name is Methuselah, and at 4,765 years old and counting, it is the oldest living thing known on earth.

The bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva, Pinus Aristata) grows at high altitudes in six western states, but only in the Great Basin of Utah, Nevada, and California do the trees reach the staggering ages for which they have become famous.

These beautiful trees, with their grooved, thick, wind-scoured bark and fragrant green needles, are living parables to the benefits of adversity. It is actually because of the austere conditions under which they grow that they live so long.

The oldest trees grow in the most exposed sites, unprotected from the lashing wind and the heat of the sun, in areas of scant moisture and little soil. Isolated because of their toughness, the open spaces surrounding each tree prevent the spread of fire. The bristlecone’s dense, highly resinous wood is iron hard and impervious to bacteria, fungus, and insects. If a part of the tree is damaged by lightning or drought, a dieback of bark and xylem cauterizes the affected area, allowing the healthy portions of the tree to grow on. Thus in some of the oldest specimens a single thin strip of living bark sustains the skeletal remains of an otherwise dead tree. Bristlecone needles, which form clusters shaped like a bottlebrush or fox tail, can live up to 30 years, thus providing a stable photosynthetic capacity that sustains the trees through times of stress.

Indeed, the only force the bristlecone pine seems vulnerable to is man. In 1964, a young geographer working on his doctorate in Nevada cut down a bristlecone pine named Prometheus on Wheeler Peak in the Snake Range (later to become Great Basin National Park). The howl of a chainsaw reverberated through the glacial cirque, metal teeth bit into desiccated wood, and presently the oldest living thing on earth fell over dead. It was later determined by dendro-chronologists that at the time of its death Prometheus was 4,950 years old!

In Utah, ancient groves of bristlecone pine can be found on the crests of most of the high alpine west desert ranges, on the Tushars in south-central Utah, and on the windswept scarps of some of the higher plateaus, such as the Markagunt and the Aquarius. While the oldest documented trees are in California, we may have a few 4,000-year-old specimens hidden away in the more remote corners of our west desert.

One of my favorite bristlecone pine groves is on Notch Peak of the House Range. The grandeur of this peak is hard to describe. Imagine a Greek Titan wading up out of the Mediterranean Sea and splitting the Great Pyramid at Giza down the middle, leaving a sheer wall where the western slope had been. Visualize this multiplied by thousands of feet, until the half-pyramid is huge, and you begin to comprehend Notch Peak.

Through drought and storm and the rise and fall of kingdoms, these trees have stood, silent in their fields of stone. Approach them with reverence; treat them with care; look long on the parable of their eldritch forms twisting upward toward the sun. Watch long enough and maybe you’ll learn from these trees the secret of their success, a hidden wisdom more valuable than rubies: how to live a long and abundant life in a desert of adversity.