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

Trip Report, Part 5: Ancient Bristlecone Forest

I hardly know what to say here. Here I am, the professional writer, and words are not coming easily. I don’t know how to describe the feeling of this pilgrimage to the world’s oldest living beings, a longtime dream fulfilled. A number of the bristlecones in the White Mountains are nearly 5,000 years old.

I am sharing photos, but they don’t capture the tears in my eyes as I sat beneath the Patriarch Tree, a massive elder that is well over a thousand years old. In the words of PBS’s Nova website: “The Patriarch Tree is recognized as the largest bristlecone pine anywhere. Though only 41 feet tall, it is massive, with a fluted, multiple trunk 36 feet in circumference.”  Here is the view as I rested against its hard bark.

These photos were taken at Patriarch Grove at 11,000 feet. You can see why the dolomite of this range gives it the name of the White Mountains.

The bark of the bristlecones is beautiful. Here’s a close-up.

I was struck by the contrast of a slow-growing youngster. A ranger showed me the tree in the next photograph. Seen here beside a cone from a mature tree, this tiny sapling was four inches tall–and 10 years old.

You really have to want to get to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest area in the White Mountains. It is up a windy road in the middle of nothing before you reach the visitor center at 10,000 feet. This part is all paved. Then if you want to go to the Patriarch Grove at 11,000 feet–and of course I did–it’s a dirt road from there. That last part of the trip was extraordinary–I really understood the expression of feeling like I was on top of the world.

If you drove the 12 miles straight through it would be 45 minutes. But I took longer because the views were incredible. I stopped often to just stare, and to take a few photos of trees and lichens. At one point, a prairie falcon flew just above my car and scattered a flock of songbirds.

Here is a view of the landscape from the road, looking out over the bristlecone forest.

Here is a lovely snag (dead tree). Further down in the grove by the visitor center, there is a fallen tree that looks quite intact, but it’s been dated back to the 1600s. These trees barely decay. Mind-boggling.

Lichens on the rocks.