Calumet Artist Residency

Black Oak Savanna, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Black Oak Savanna, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

In June of 2017, I enjoyed 2 weeks as the Artist in Residence at the Calumet Artist Residency in Gary, IN. I have been to Gary a number of times over the years, but I have not previously had the time and space to develop a concrete connection to this unique and dramatically varied environment of the dunes.

During the visit, I toured the downtown of Gary and had the chance to go in some historic architectural spaces.  The WPA funded, Gary Post Office (1936), is open to the elements. Ostrich ferns oscillate on the floor in patches where the sun cuts through the open roof.  There are plans to stabilize and re-purpose the City Methodist Church (1925), one of the first million dollar churches in the country, into a ruins garden open to the public. The boarded up windows of Union Station (1910) have been replaced with murals, and community members are creating a public garden around the structure. 

These sites are heart-wrenching and unmistakably beautiful in their states of decay, but there is also an immense weight attached to them that I'm guessing the people of Gary have to carry around with them everyday.  While it's uplifting to see the community gathering around and bringing positive energy to this story, as an artist, this complex social history is not my story to tell.   Instead, I decided to use my short residency time to connect to the natural history of this area – the plants and animals, the humidity, the wind, the water and the clouds.

The residency is in the Miller area of east Gary next to the national park.  And while Miller is inseparable from the downtown story, for me, the narrative here is more about a natural ecosystem fighting and shining between a lakeside powerplant and the largest steel mill in North America. 

The line - Google screen shot

The line - Google screen shot

US Steel is the founder, and arguably the destroyer, of Gary as well as the NIMBY neighbor of the national park.  People have worked to protect this area.  From historic organizations and individuals like "Save the Dunes," who fought for the establishment of the national lakeshore in 1966 to contemporary artist/activists like the Calumet Residency founders Corey Hagelberg (http://www.coreyhagelberg.com/) and Kate Land (calumetresidency.com).

The residency house sits at the top of one of the tallest forested dunes in the area.  A short walk down and across Lake Street will take you into the national park. 

Dunesteps to the residency house

Dunesteps to the residency house

National Park Trail

National Park Trail

In the park, sandy paths break off in multiple directions into the oak savanna.  These trails go up, down, and between the dunes and lagoons.  Furrowed black oak trunks protrude from the ferns, flowers, and grasses that cover the under story. 

Lagoon in the park

Lagoon in the park

The trail transitions toward the beach into a more raw and windswept dunescape.  The oaks become gnarled and dwarfed, marram grasses begin to take root, even prickly pear cactus line the winding trail. 

Even with the nearby public beach and adjacent residential areas, these inter-dunal valleys create surprisingly private spaces to relax and reflect.

Crossing the last sandy dunes leads to the beach.  You can follow the edge of the national park west to the imposing barrier of US Steel or you can head east to public beaches and the historic Marquette Park. 

The east barrier of US Steel - adjacent to the national park

The east barrier of US Steel - adjacent to the national park

 Another highlight of this residency was a public sculpture I created for Maquette Park.  A slide show of images and project information can be found below.  I am also working on a woodcut that I will add to this site when finished.  Thanks for taking a look. 

In Memoriam

The emerald ash borer has hugely impacted the ash population of northwest Indiana including the Miller neighborhood of Gary.   This sculpture serves as a memory to the lost ash trees but also to promote awareness about other native and invasive species of plants and pests in this area.  The sculpture will be a feature of a new native-plant educational garden in the park.  Doubling as a planter, the concrete sculpture will sprout native species from the trunk of the memorialized ash tree.  With this sculpture, there is an element of rebirth or growth from decay, that reflects the optimism of the natural world and the people of Gary.

Follow these links to more information about this project and or the EAB in your area:

http://www.joshkwinkler.com/eab

http://www.in.gov/dnr/entomolo/5349.htm

http://www.emeraldashborer.info/

Pinus longaeva

This post is broken into 3 parts: 1st a short overview of the species (The Ancient Bristlecone Pine), 2nd the Prometheus story and the Wheeler Peek Bristlecones (The Great Basin National Park and my quest for the Prometheus Stump),  and 3rd the Inyo National Forest groves in eastern California (The White Mountain Groves). 

All photographs were taken in the summer of 2015.  A reading list is at the bottom of the post.

1. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine

Time shapes form, adversity builds character

Group of ancient bristlecones near the Prometheus stump on Wheeler Peak

Group of ancient bristlecones near the Prometheus stump on Wheeler Peak

Pinus longaeva, the Great Basin Bristlecone, exists in Utah, Nevada, and California.  The trees grow in large clusters in poor soil where there is sparse undergrowth and little competition.  This lack of density / ground-cover provides minimal fuel for forest fires contributing to tree longevity. The Great Basin Bristlecone can live for more than 5,000 years.  This absurd lifespan is a direct result of the adverse conditions in which the oldest trees exist.  The drier, the colder, the windier the climate the slower the trees grow.  The slower the growth, the denser the wood.  This extreme density allows these dwarf pines to stand up to the elements without toppling over. 

From a distance. Grove of ancient bristlecones on California's White Mountains Methuselah Trail

From a distance. Grove of ancient bristlecones on California's White Mountains Methuselah Trail

In all trees, the nutrients and moisture that provides life to their foliage is carried from the earth to the branches through the inner bark, the cambium layer, and the new growth sapwood of the outer rings - all of which is just below the outer bark.  It is not uncommon for the oldest bristlecones to live on for hundreds of years with only a single strip of bark.  A 5,000 year old tree, while producing viable cones and only a few sprigs of green growth, may be 90% or more dead wood standing. 

Life-blood-bark-strips on an ancient bristlecone.  4000+ yr old tree in California's White Mountains Methuselah Grove. 

Life-blood-bark-strips on an ancient bristlecone.  4000+ yr old tree in California's White Mountains Methuselah Grove. 

Bristlecones grow somewhere between 10 and fifty feet tall.  Trees with a nearby water source and more nutrient rich soil will grow quickly and die young.  This quick growth generates soft heartwood susceptible to rot, insects, and wind.  Conversely, the 4000+ year old trees, may only reach 15 feet tall and a few feet across. The Patriarch Tree, the largest living bristlecone, is a young 1500 years old, while the Methuselah (somewhere around 5000yrs) is a small fraction of the Patriarch in mass. 

Patriarch Tree, 1500yrs, Patriarch Grove - The remote White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest.

Patriarch Tree, 1500yrs, Patriarch Grove - The remote White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest.

Both researchers and the National Park Service have done a great job hiding the identity of the oldest trees.  I have found 3 historic photographs of the Methuselah(currently considered the oldest), but I myself did not find it while walking the Methuselah trail.  And, In truth it is better this way.  While exploring some of the old mines and younger bristlecones in the White Mountains, I found some of the trees had been carved up with knife. 

Tree vandals in the 21st century, a heart symbol knifed into the bark of a bristlecone in California's White Mountains.

Tree vandals in the 21st century, a heart symbol knifed into the bark of a bristlecone in California's White Mountains.

The Great Basin National Park and my quest for the Prometheus Stump

Wheeler Peak

Wheeler Peak

My quest to Great Basin National Park was a general effort to see the ancient bristlecones, but it was also an effort to find the stump of the Prometheus tree.  This ancient tree of Wheeler Peak was potentially the oldest of all trees before it was cut down in 1964 by North Carolina graduate student, Donald Currey.

The circumstances around this event vary from person to person, from publication to publication.  There are stories of his Swedish increment borer breaking off in the trunk warranting the felling of the tree.  There are stories that Currey was vainly seeking the oldest tree for acknowledgement.  Either way, Currey likely cut down the tree to accurately date it.  To date these trees you need to a consistent core from the outer bark to the inner heartwood.  Their gnarly growth patterns, and their eroded deadwood, in many cases, make this nearly impossible. 

Currey consulted with The Forest Service and they agreed to cut down the tree for his research.  At the time, It was believed that the only 4000+ yr old trees were in the White Mountains of California.  Currey wanted to prove that there were 4000+ yr old bristlecones on Wheeler Peak in Nevada.  He knew Prometheus was one of the oldest, and he assumed there were others in nearby groves that would be studied after the news of his 5,000 yr old find was published.  Unfortunately for Currey, the Prometheus tree WAS one of a kind.  Not a single bristlecone comparable to Prometheus has been found in the area.

The main flaw with Currey and his killing of the oldest tree is that he did not first consult the scientists who had already surveyed the trees.  That he likely knew he had something special in Prometheus and decided to cut it down anyway. That he was a geology graduate student, and he did not consult with his superiors or with scientists devoted specifically to studying the bristlecones.  Edmund Shulman, a dendrochronologist and bristlecone pioneer at the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research had published an article in National Geographic about the ancient bristlecones in 1958 (6 years before the felling of Prometheus).  Currey sites the Shulman article himself in his 1965 Ecology publication about the Prometheus tree. 

To be fair, other researchers, including Shulman, have cut down ancient bristlecones for specific chronology purposes.  They undoubtedly had a better understanding of what they were doing, and selected their trees carefully.  But in the end, what is the difference between cutting a 4000yr old and a 5000yr old? 

First view of groves from Mather's Overlook

First view of groves from Mather's Overlook

In Great Basin National Park, from Mather's Overlook, you can get a good glimpse of Wheeler summit, the edge of the treeline, and begin to visualize the off-trail hike to Prometheus. 

The edge of the forest.  Glacial Moraine at tree line on northeast face of Wheeler Peak, (Near Prometheus Stump)

The edge of the forest.  Glacial Moraine at tree line on northeast face of Wheeler Peak, (Near Prometheus Stump)

I parked the auto at the Wheeler peak campground.  After a few hours of increasing elevation and bouldering off-trail through massive fields of jagged quartzite, I made it to the edge of the forest. 

Glacial Moraine at tree line on northeast face of Wheeler Peak, (Near Prometheus Stump)

Glacial Moraine at tree line on northeast face of Wheeler Peak, (Near Prometheus Stump)

Edges can carry emotional, visual, spiritual weight.  But beyond natural water bodies and the human built environment, it's rare to find an edge so clearly defined, so significant.  It could not be a more dramatic spot for the oldest living tree.  I sat down my day pack, and instantly, I saw a downed tree about 30 yards off with a wedged section clearly cut from it trunk.   

The Prometheus Tree

The Prometheus Tree

I have only been able to find a few photos of the living Prometheus in print.  Seeing images of the tree alive, after visiting the remains, its difficult not to be upset about its demise.  In one of the documentary photographs by Great Basin Naturalist, Keith Trexler, Currey has climbed the tree for the camera, maybe as a scale reference, but out of context, its difficult not to see a tragic expression of ownership on his smiling face. 

The Prometheus Tree

The Prometheus Tree

The Prometheus Stump

The Prometheus Stump

The Prometheus Tree, according to Currey's Ecology Article, grew at an altitude of 10,750ft.  It had "a dead crown 17ft high, a living shoot 11ft high, and a 252-inch circumference 18 inches above the ground...Bark was present along a single 19-inch wide north-facing strip."  Currey dated the tree around 4900 years.   

The Prometheus Stump

The Prometheus Stump

The Prometheus Stump (Foreground), Wheeler Peak (Background). 

The Prometheus Stump (Foreground), Wheeler Peak (Background). 

Not unlike the Discovery Tree of the sierras, the felling of Prometheus, brought awareness and increased conservation to these ancient trees.  Even though Wheeler Peak was not officially declared a national park until 1986, the attention and outrage brought by Prometheus, played a pivotal role in the transition of this area of the Snake Range into Great Basin National Park.

The White Mountain Groves

DSC_0557.JPG

The majority of bristlecone data, and the majority of the oldest trees are concentrated in the White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest in Eastern California (about six hours driving from Wheeler).  The White Mountains are named for the white dolomite limestone that generate a highly alkaline soil.  The bristlecones are able to thrive in this basic dry soil with little competition from other species.

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

Shulman first walked the Methuselah trail in 1957.  He thought conditions were great for old growth dwarf trees.  Shulman describes this area as "the farthest limit of the dry forest edge, outcroppings of calcareous rock, and little rainfall--probably no more than 10 inches a year." 

Shulman's intuition was correct.  The Methuselah Trail is home to many 4000+ yr old Trees, most famously of course, the Methuselah, a "pickaback" type that Shulman dated in 1957 at around 4,600 years. Shulman refers to this tree as the Great-Granddad in his 1958 Nat. Geo. article.  He also talks about cutting down another "pickaback" variety: "to determine the life history of this strange pickaback form of tree, we hardened our hearts and, at the very end of the field season, cut down a similar but somewhat younger specimen for detailed study."  This felled tree turned out to be right around 4000 yrs old. 

Core samples being prepared in lab at LTRR (not necessarily bristlecone)

Core samples being prepared in lab at LTRR (not necessarily bristlecone)

There is a remote research station high in the White Mountains between the Methuselah walk and Patriarch Grove.  This site, ran by the University of California, is where Edmund Schulman sorted through core samples from the Methuselah.  It was here that he had his eureka moment and determined it's age. 

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

Today, the Methuselah trail is a 4.5 mile loop that meanders through a grove of young and old bristlecone pines.  At the start of the walk, near the visitor's center, there is a creek bed that provides moisture to an abundance of young bristlecones.  This moisture allows the trees to grow tall quickly, but their lives are short lived.  They look like an entirely different species compared to the dwarfed ancients further down the trail.

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

The bristlecones of the White Mountains have provided an abundance of data since the 50s, and there is still an abundance of research that has not yet been accomplished.  By taking core samples from both living and dead trees, scientists are able to study tree ring growth patterns to build a climatic chronology for the past 11,500 years.  This science is so accurate, in fact, that the tree ring data is used for calibration in radio carbon dating.  

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

Dead snag on the Methuselah Trail

Dead snag on the Methuselah Trail

Tree labels on the Methuselah Trail

Tree labels on the Methuselah Trail

Bristlecone groves on the Methuselah Trail

Bristlecone groves on the Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

A gathering of rolling cones on the Methuselah Trail

A gathering of rolling cones on the Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

Methuselah Trail

The Patriarch Grove...

Patriarch Grove is a 12-mile northward drive from the Shulman Grove along White Mountain Road.  A short detour along the way will take you to The White Mountain Research Station - Crooked Creek (the site where Shulman dated the Methuselah tree back in 1957).  This off-the-grid station sits at 10,150 feet, and hosts a number of researchers, retreats, and field classes annually.

The unpaved route to Patriarch Grove

The unpaved route to Patriarch Grove

White Mountain Road is a rocky winding path best taken with a 4-wheel drive vehicle.  Unknowingly, I had rented a little Nissan Versa, which made the going extremely slow.  In the end, I pulled over and walked the last few miles on foot (partly because I was enjoying the sparse high desert scenery, and partly to avoid a flat tire).  

New bristlecone growth in Patriarch Grove.

New bristlecone growth in Patriarch Grove.

The density of trees in Shulman Grove (Elevation 10,100ft) is abundant compared to the sparseness of Patriarch Grove (Elevation 11,300ft).   That said, the rapidly warming climate of the past 50 years has produced a wealth of new growth bristlecones in the grove.

Once arriving at the Patriarch Grove park lot, there is a short 1/4 mile trail through some gnarled cliff grabbing bristlecones.  You can also get a nice glimpse of White Mountain Peak, the 3rd tallest mountain in the lower-48 @ 14,252ft. 

The whiteness of rocks, sparseness of vegetation, and drama of the grappling bristlecones make this grove particularly striking and otherworldly. 

Remnants of a dead forest.  Patriarch Grove. 

Remnants of a dead forest.  Patriarch Grove. 

Clinging to the mountain.  Ancient Bristlecone at Patriarch Grove

Clinging to the mountain.  Ancient Bristlecone at Patriarch Grove

A dead standing Bristlecone at Patriarch Grove

A dead standing Bristlecone at Patriarch Grove

The famed Patriarch tree.  At only 1500yrs, it has the largest mass of all living bristlecones.

The famed Patriarch tree.  At only 1500yrs, it has the largest mass of all living bristlecones.

 

Reference Reading:

  • Shulman, Edmund.  Bristlecone Pine, Oldest Known Living Thing.  National Geographic.  March 1958. 
  • Currey, Donald.  An Ancient Bristlecone Pine Stand in Eastern Nevada.  Ecology, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Jul., 1965), pp. 564-566
  • Lambert, Darwin.  Great Basin Drama, The Story of a National Park.  Roberts Rhinehart.  1991. 
  • Coen, Michael.  A Garden of Bristlecones, Tales of Change in the Great Basin. University od Nevada Press.  1998.