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
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Great Basin National Park and my quest for the Prometheus Stump
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?
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
- 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.