Up The Road: Bristlecones

Jul 26, 2017

This week we continue exploring the Sierra Nevada’s dramatic east side, where the mountains drop sharply into the Great Basin. We head up the road from Big Pine to the White Mountains and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, home to the oldest known individual trees in the world—bristlecone pines, gnarled and gristly members of the species Pinus longaeva. Sometimes people skip the correct Latin–or attempt thereof—and just say “pine-us,” for the genus name, to avoid raised eyebrows in polite society.

You need to distinguish between individual trees and clonal trees when discussing those of great age, because biologists get nitpicky on details. In 2012 the oldest known bristlecone geezer was dated through tree rings—one ring equal to one year of growth—as being 5,062 years old. (Even older than the previous oldest old-timer, affectionately known as Methuselah—named for the oldest human in the Bible—which is just 4,844 years old.) That’s about when we humans were busy inventing the wheel, board games, and writing, not to mention slavery.

Credit E. Howe

But some clonal trees, or colonies of trees that are genetically identical—propagating themselves sequentially by root sprouts, for example—have been alive much, much longer, though individuals in the colony may be young. Then again, it depends on how you define “individual.” There’s a colony of some 47,000 quaking aspen trees in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, covering 106 acres, that’s estimated to be 80,000 years old. Just think about that. The earliest fossilized bones of anatomically modern humans are 90,000 years old, and just 35,000 years ago Neanderthals disappeared. Some 15,000 years ago we humans developed the concept of the bow and arrow, and about 10,000 years ago—still in the Stone Age—we started cultivating crops and domesticating animals. 80,000 years is old.

But back to the grizzled individualists of Inyo National Forest. They are certainly survivors. The landscape is inhospitable yet these remarkable trees seem unperturbed by high elevations, rock for soil, summer drought and heat, and brutally cold winters—though smog creeping up from LA may yet do them in.

Bristlecone pines growing in this stark, nearly naked mountain range have been alive longer than any other ancient trees on earth. And they look old, if not dead, something like living driftwood. Which lends this place such a strange sense of timelessness, with life and death, past and future, almost indistinguishable. These dwellers on the threshold, attached to the landscape oddly, like so many surreal sculptures, somehow manage to produce pine needles and cones with fertile seeds.

Credit Fred Moore

These ancients are also quite famous, known as the trees that rewrote history. As the story goes, starting in the 1950s Edmund Schulman of the University of Arizona began tree-ring studies of these particular bristlecones. But conflicts between his data and the results of then-unquestioned carbon-14 dating techniques led to universal C-14 testing corrections. Those corrections shook up accepted world history timelines and theories—eliminating, for example, the idea of Greek and Roman cultural diffusion to explain the astronomical accuracy of Stonehenge and other remarkable aspects of early European society.

Visiting California’s bristlecone pines is at least an all-day trip—one usually not possible in winter, when the road is closed. Plan ahead, and do not plan to rely on your cell phone in an emergency. Start out from Big Pine with a full tank of gas and bring water—there isn’t any, even at campgrounds, picnic areas, or the visitor center—and food, good walking shoes, hat, and other sun protection plus warm clothing, since even in summer it’s cool at higher elevations and the weather can change fast. Get going early you’ll be able to explore both the Schulman Grove and Patriarch Grove farther north. You’ll be hiking at high elevations—above 10,000 feet—and you’ll feel it, so take it easy. In summer consider camping at Grandview Campground on the way to Schulman Grove to acclimate.