Very Old Tree Lives Another Day

Today, as on many days, on the slopes of the White Mountains in eastern California, the sun beat down on the parched, almost lifeless ground from a cloudless, cold sky. Wind off the Sierra Nevada kicked up flurries of dust. Not much has moved: the white dolomite stone which forms the peaks is strongly alkaline and hostile to nature. It is one of the driest places on the planet. But, as usual, Methuselah hardly noticed. It has seen this sort of thing before. A great many times.

Methuselah is a bristlecone pine tree and one of the oldest living things on earth. It is named after the longest-lived person in the Bible, Noah’s grandfather, who lasted 969 years. It has been alive for 4,854 years.

That means, it was already quietly enduring the brutal conditions of the White Mountains for several hundred years when the first Pyramids were built. When it sprouted, writing had only just been developed; the wheel was an extremely recent invention.

Much of Methuselah is now dead. Patient and impassive, bristlecone pines survive by allowing a large amount of their wood to die. This reduces the nutrients they need and enables the living parts to thrive. A ten-inch length of reddish, deeply ridged bark can support a sizeable crown. The blunt, yellow-green needles that flower keep going for twenty to thirty years, minimising the energy expended on producing new ones. Marshalling its resources, Methuselah has survived millenia of stress.

Sand and ice carried by the wind have scoured it smooth. It has become gnarled and twisted, its multiple trunks spiralling and seeming to billow like a piece of silk that has been thrown to the breeze and frozen.

It has been protected by its tough environment. Little competition can deal with the conditions, so there is hardly any threat from disease. A lightning bolt would be stopped short: fire cannot spread because the trees stand so far apart and there is almost no foliage on the ground. Methuselah is left to look on, a wise, patient, resigned sentinel. It will still be there when we’re gone. We will be thinking of it as the day rushes past.