Book Review – Michael Cohen, “A Garden of Bristlecones”

This is a book about a tree by the name of “Bristlecone Pine”, the people who have studied them and what the trees have told us. I have made a point on one of my trips into the Southwest, to locate examples of the species and to sit quietly in their presence.

The most notable thing about the tree is the length of time it can live. These are perhaps the longest lived species on the planet – some have been on earth for in excess of 5,000 years. They have proved useful in a variety of studies related to climate and they have provided a needed correction to the Carbon-dating process. When they were finally properly correlated to the Carbon dating process, they caused a major upset in the chronologies that the archeologist has built up based upon other means.

A fellow named Edmund Schulman began a  search, back in the 1940’s, for long lived trees and eventually found the Bristlecones in the White Mountains of California. In 1956, he was able to date a core from one of the trees as 4,600 years old. He called the tree “Pine Alpha”. He puiblished a story in the 1958 edition of National Geographic which drew national attention to the trees. Eventually, with the use of dead trees and parts of trees that were used in buildings, the chronology was extended back 8,686 years.

One of the tragedies of the story has to do with the very oldest of the trees – the oldest living example. A researcher, in a hurry to complete a project, talked the US Forest Service into cutting down an isolated tree in what is now the Great Basin national Park. This was just before laws were passed that would have forbidden the act of cutting. After examinaction, it was found that this tree was up to 5,100 years old. The Forest Service, in its embarrassment over the controvercy that arose, chose to bulldoze the site and completely obliterate the location where the tree had been growing. To this day, the location is unknown, or at least, unpublished. The story of how the tree came to be cut has its own twists and turns with a variety of involved folkstrying to avoid being blamed for what was described in an article in Nature as “the murder of the oldest living thing on Earth”….This tree has been given the name Prometheus. The story is told by many of the participants and in the official report, that a number of the men who were brought to the site for the purpose of cutting the tree refused to participate once they had touched the tree.

As a consequence, care has been taken to preserve the older trees. “Today, the oldest living thing by default is the Methuselah Tree in the White Mountains; its exact location is kept a secret for fear that tourists will desecrate it or carry off souvenirs”.

There is also this story, based loosely on the story of Prometheus: “A friend the other day told me a story of walking up a particular ridge where a Bristlecone Pine stood, one of the oldest trees on Earth. He considered it his Elder and went to pay his respects as he had done year after year. When he finally found his way to the tree, it had been cut down. The body of the Bristlecone Pine lay on its side sawed into pieces. He stood before the stump for some time and then pulled out his pocketknife and made a small cut along the tip of his thumb. He let the blood drip onto the stump.”  Romantic perhaps…but I fully understand the sentiment.

I liked this book a lot.