Time and Textures – The Company of Old Trees

Bristlecone pine portrait White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone pine, Inyo National Forest

Craving the company of old trees, in September last year I ventured to the land of the world’s oldest living things—the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California’s White Mountains. I’d fulfilled a dream to visit with my first trip but at the mercy of altitude sickness, I was only able to stay for a few hours. The place beckoned me back. This time I had medication that enabled me to camp for several nights at 8,600 feet and hike the trails as high as 11,000 feet.

The bristlecone pines’ gnarled trunks speak to their endurance, through fires and thousands of winters in blasting wind, and snow that sustains them through the dry summers. Many parts die back with just a few branches sprouting needles and cones. They grow in nutrient-poor soil at a profoundly slow rate, sometimes reflecting 100 years in tree rings that are only an inch across.

The oldest known tree, Methuselah, is more than 4,600 years old. The trail winds through the grove where Methuselah grows anonymously among its neighbors that are 3,000 and 4,000 years old. Their shapes and textures are striking.

Bristlecone grove on Methusaleh Trail White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone pines siilhouette White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone fire-scarred bark White Mountains 9-2015Even after they die, bristlecone pines can take thousands of years to decompose.

Fallen bristlecone that died in 1676 White Mountains 9-2015Log from a bristlecone pine more than 3,200 years old that fell in 1676

Along the Methuselah Trail, I came upon a tree that was about my height and I wondered about its age. Certainly it must have been at least a few hundred years old, perhaps 1,000 or more. I held its young green needles in my hand, a contrast in old and new.

Bristlecone branches White Mountains 9-2015

Walking among the bristlecones is a journey of awe. I am moved by their persistence.

Moonrise at Patriarch Grove White Mountains 9-2015
Moonrise over the Patriarch Grove at 11,000 feet


  1. Beautifully written. I have made only a single journey to this amazing place. Puts a lot in perspective for me. Very humbling and serene. Thank you!

  2. Oh, Beverly, what haunting photos of haunted trees . . . they are perhaps single-minded in their determination to survive, though I won’t say to thrive. Thank you for this. From another woodswoman.

  3. The Partiarch Grove is one of the most magical places on the planet…….I have been lucky enough to spend a fair amount of nights there during the warmer months, and get up at dawn, and photograph sunrise over Nevada…….as for the trees, they are some of the most sacred I have ever been privileged enough to abide amongst……even the smallest detail in that environment just seems to have been in place for hundreds of years……I have also been lucky enough to do a spring trip with my friends sled dogs up to camp at the gate at The Barcroft Lab, and go on to ski White Mountain Peak, which I have also been on top of , like five times on my bike……..THIS ENTIRE ENVIRONMENT IS JUST COMPLETELY AMAZING……..SOOOOOO SORRY, I haven’t been there in at least a decade, and now that I have followed destiny back to rural central Kansas, I’m not really sure when, or if I will ever return there, but thanks so much for sharing this stuff Beverly……you are lucky indeed to have spent time with these venerable elders……

  4. I love reading about the Bristlecones and their forest. It is so fascinating and as you mentioned, striking. Hope to get up there with my kids in a couple years.

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