Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Ancient Bristlecone Pines, White Mountains, California

Let's see, what was going on 4,500 years ago today. That would have been 2490 BC. That's way before the Romans and Greeks. I guess the trees we  are looking at started growing around the time of early Chinese civilization.

Of course some are just young pups, a couple of thousand years or so old. These trees have developed unique methods of adapting in order to survive for so many years. First they grow in areas of dolomite soil. Dolomite is metamorphosed limestone (Limestone, changed by heat into hard dense rock). Suffice it to say that the soil is toxic to almost all other forms of plant life, thus, no competition for sunlight and water. Second, they allow parts of the tree to die off in dry times while keeping essential parts alive. The trees look mostly dead with little or no bark and only occasional branches of greenery here and there to show that they are living. The wood seems to be impervious to the ravages of insects and weather. Solid wood, as much as 10,000 years old, lies all over the ground.

 This old fellow is one of the Patriarchs of the
The trees in this grove are "Great Basin Bristlecone Pines". The grove lies on the western slope of the White Mountains, just east of the Sierras, at 10,000 feet.

It's hard to believe that some of these trees are still living, but they are alive and well.  Scientists use a technique known as dendrochronology (roughly – tree ring dating) to determine the age of the trees. By counting the growth rings of a core sample they can accurately date the tree. Dead wood that falls to the ground in the White Mountains can survive intact for many thousands of years due to the very cold and dry climate. These growth rings vary in width depending on growing conditions. By comparing the width of the rings of fallen wood with those of still living wood they can accurately date older wood, back to 10,000 years. They have used these techniques to correct inaccuracies in Carbon 14 dating that were suspected in the 1960s and later confirmed by dendrochronology. Many archeological sites in America and Europe have now been found to be much older than originally believed.
The Bristlecone Pine grove itself is a hostile, yet beautiful, place. The steep slopes, steep enough that they are almost impossible to climb, combined with the inhospitable soil and climate have turned out to be a perfect place for these ancient trees.
One of things that struck me about the trees was the hardness of the wood. Rapping on a branch, for all the world looking dead and dried, would produce a sound like a tuned drum and resonate through the branch. I'm sure a trained musician, with a set of mallets, could play music on the branches of these trees.

You can pick up a piece of dead wood from the ground that may be 4,000, 6,000, maybe 10,000 years old and it is still as sound and solid as a piece of hardwood you might purchase at a lumber mill.
Here's a couple of youngsters surrounding one of the older trees. Occasionally we found core tags that indicated when and where a core sample had been taken, but unfortunately there was nothing to indicate the age of individual trees. We had to guess at their age.
The magnificence of the aged wood is striking. Grain colors range from the palest of tans, through rich browns and reds with occasional grey to black. The stark beauty of the rugged environment, combined with the lovely colors gives the place an almost cathedral like ambiance. I think I will need to go back some day and visit the grove during a full moon. It will be spookily beautiful I'm sure.
We arrived at the grove to hike around late morning and there were a few people hiking on some on the shorter trails on the edge of the grove. We had decided to do the longer 4 mile hike through the grove and to the area of the oldest trees.
We were fortunate to have the hike to ourselves; just us and a few thousand of our oldest boreal friends.
As you all know we tend to seek outdoor adventures wherever we go, but we also have a spiritual side and we often hike to places that are much more than just a workout and a nice view. This was just such a place.
The cold clear air, the absolute quiet, and the unusual beauty of these old trees touched our souls. I can't imagine not visiting this wonderful place anytime we travel this way again.
These Great Basin Bristlecone pines grow, almost always above 10,000 feet, in the mountains of Utah, in Great Basin National Park in Nevada, and here in the White Mountains of California. A closely related tree, the Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine, grows in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico and in a small isolated grove near Flagstaff Arizona.

The name "Bristlecone" comes from the fact that the egg sized cone has a tiny spike at the end of each scale.
If you ever have the chance to see one of these groves, even though it might be a bit of work to get there, I strongly suggest you do. It is quite a feeling to put your hand on a 4,500 year old living tree.
This was not an easy hike, there was a lot of snow on the sometimes quite steep slopes, it was cold and windy, and we were at 10,000 feet, but we were well prepared with warm clothing and our crampons.  Sometimes you just have to suck it up and go see the wonders of the world no matter where they are.  This one was definitely worth it.
Hug a Tree Today!

Pinus Longaeva
The oldest living entity on Planet Earth

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