The Majesty and Mystery of California's Bristlecone Pines

Lying east of the Owens Valley and the jagged crags of the Sierra Nevadas, the White Mountains rise high above the valley floor, reaching over 14,000 feet, nearly as high as their far better-known relatives, the Sierra Nevadas. Highway 168 runs perpendicular to highway 395 out of Big Pine and leads up into the mountains to perhaps the most sacred place in California.

Far above sea level, where the air is thin, live some of the most amazing organisms on the planet: the ancient bristlecone pines. To the untrained eye, the bristlecone seems hardly noteworthy. Gnarled and oftentimes squat, especially when compared to the majestic coastal redwoods and giant sequoias living near the coast further west, they hardly seem like mythical beings. But to scientists, they are a trove of information, offering clues to near immortality and to the many ways that the earth’s climate has changed over the last 5,000 years. 

In the January 20 edition of the New Yorker, music writer Alex Ross writes about the trees and the scientists who are trying to unlock the secrets of the bristlecone’s unfathomable endurance. The trees, he writes, “seem sentinel-like”.

Bristlecones are the longest living organism on earth. The tree’s Latin name is Pinus longaeva, and it grows exclusively in subalpine regions of the vast area known to geologists as the Great Basin, which stretches from the eastern Sierra Nevadas to the Wasatch Range, in Utah. Bristlecones grow between 9,800 and 11,000 feet above sea level, where some people get dizzy and there are few other plants or animals that thrive. The greatest abundance of bristlecones can be found just east of the town of Bishop, California in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. There, a short walk from where you park your car, you can stroll among these antediluvian beings as they imperceptibly twist, gnarl and reach towards the heavens. 

While most of the bristlecones in the national Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest are mere hundreds of years old, there are many that are far older. Almost ridiculously so. Methuselah, a Great Basin bristlecone, is 4,851 years old, as measured by its rings, taken by scientists decades ago using a drilled core. Consider that for a moment: this tree, a living organism, planted its tentacle-like roots into the soil some 2000 years before the birth of Christ, around the time that the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built. By contrast, the oldest human being we know of lived just 122 years. That’s 242 human generations passing in the lifetime of a single bristlecone that still stands along a well-trodden trail in the high Sierras. 

Bristlecone and starry sky: National Park Service
National Park Service

That said, if you were to try and see Methuselah for yourself, you are out of luck. The Forest Service is so protective of its ancient celebrity that it will not even share its picture. What’s more, it’s probably the case that there are bristlecones that are even older than Methuselah. Scientists think there could be trees in the forest that are over 5,000 years old. 

How the bristlecone has managed this incredible feat of endurance is a mystery to researchers. Many other tree species are prone to insect infestations, wildfires, climate change. In fact, over the last two decades, the vast lodgepole pine forests of the Western United States and British Columbia have been ravaged by the pine beetle. Millions of acres of trees have been lost, including more than 16 million of the 55 million acres of forest in British Columbia.  

But insects don’t seem to be a problem for bristlecones. Bristlecone wood is so dense that mountain-pine beetles and other pests can rarely burrow their way into it. Further, the region where the bristlecones live tends to be sparse with vegetation, and thus far less prone to wildfire. 

Jeff Sullivan
Jeff Sullivan

So how do the trees manage to live so long? 

A recent study by scientists at the University of North Texas looked at the amazing longevity of the ginkgo tree, examining individuals in China and the US that have lived for hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand years. One thing they found is that the trees’ immune systems remain largely intact, even youthful, throughout their lives. It turns out the genes in the cambium, or the cylinder of tissue beneath the bark, contain no “program” for senescence, or death, but continue making defenses even after hundreds of years. Researchers think the same thing might be happening in the bristlecone. This is not the case in most organisms and certainly not humans. Like replicants in the movie Blade Runner, we seem to have a built-in clock in our cells that only allows us to live for so long. (I want more life, f$@$@!

Scientists at the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research (LTRR) have built up the world’s largest collection of bristlecone cross-sections, which they carefully examine under the microscope, looking for clues about how the trees have managed to survive so long, and how they can inform us of the many ways the earth’s climate has changed over the millennia.

The LTRR houses the nation’s only dendrochronology lab (the term for the study of tree rings), and the researchers there have made several discoveries using tree cores that have changed or confirmed climate models. For example, in 1998, the climatologist Michael E. Mann published the “hockey stick graph,” that revealed a steep rise in global mean temperature from about 1850 onward (i.e. the start of the industrial revolution). There was intense debate about this graph, with many scientists and climate change skeptics saying that Mann’s projections were too extreme. But numerous subsequent studies, some using the trees’ rings new models, confirmed the hockey-stick model. 

The bristlecones will continue to help us understand the way the earth is changing and to see into the deep human past in a way few other living organisms can do. They also improve our understanding of possible future environmental scenarios and the serious consequences of allowing carbon levels in the atmosphere to continue to grow. 

In this sense, they truly are sentinels.

But setting aside the science for a moment, it should be said that the trees themselves, in their gnarled, frozen posture, are truly are beautiful. They should be protected and preserved, admired and adulated. Indeed, Federal law prohibits any attempt to damage the trees, including taking a mere splinter from the forest floor. The trees have also become an obsession for photographers, particularly those who favor astrophotography. A quick search on Instagram reveals a stunning collection of images showing the majesty and haunting beauty of these ancient trees. 

So, if you are ever headed up highway 395 into the Sierras, it is well worth the effort to make the right-hand turn out of Big Pine to visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. The air is thin, but the views are spectacular. And where else can you walk among the oldest living things on the planet?

Note: there is a wonderful video produced by Patagonia on the bristlecones and some of the scientists who study them. It’s well worth watching. 

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