the oldest living trees -- 11/1/22

Today's selection -- from Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees by Jared Farmer. There are bristlecone pine trees estimated to be over 4,000 years old, making them older than California’s giant sequoias:
"In January 1956, the NSF awards [Edmund] Schulman a three-year grant to fur­ther his investigation into longevity under adversity. At last, he has fund­ing to hire his own full-time assistant. He sees the summit in his mind: a definitive tree-ring survey of his model species in its model location. He types a letter to National Geographic, pitching an article on 'Methuselah pines.' My study is comparable in scientific importance to Douglass's 1929 article on the dating of Puebloan ruins, he states matter-of-factly. An editor responds: The magazine might be interested, but only if your work could be presented in a way that appeals to 2.1 million laymen. If not, the magazine could make room for a 'filler' piece called 'The World's Oldest Trees' that covers sequoia, too. Readers like big old trees.

"In June, Edmund embarks upon his life's most important fieldwork. He's tempting fate at high altitude: his doctor has ordered him to stay home. Alsie, who suffers from atrial fibrillation, chooses not to come along. I'll be out of touch for weeks, he writes his brother, after scold­ing him for keeping him in the dark about the latest family crisis. In an emergency, he says, you can probably reach me through the Navy station. 'Big things are afoot.'

"Schulman doesn't get carried away like Humboldt. He knows the Pa­triarch and its largish neighbors aren't that old -- relatively speaking­ -- just lucky. Their habitat, though harsh, is slightly better than that of others in the Whites. To find the oldest bristlecones, Schulman seeks out steeper, looser, drier slopes. He finds strange pines whose trunks grow as slabs instead of rounds. Sustained by a single strip of bark, such a tree grows horizontally more than vertically, and ever so slowly. Its growth rings are infinitesimal. It rakes all his strength to crank his borer through the perdurable wood.

"In his first NSF summer, to his amazement and delight, Schulman 'hits the pith' of three pines older than 4,000 years, all of them con­venient to the military road. He names them, in order of age, Alpha, Beta, Gamma. To build an error-free cross-dated composite chronology for the locale -- for in the idealized world of tree-ring science, there are absolute dates or no dates -- Schulman decides he needs a complete slab. He chooses to sacrifice Alpha. He returns to LA, buys a two-man cross­cut saw, and brings along his teenage nephew and Frits Went to be the muscle. They drive in the dark to avoid overheating the Studebaker. The nephew sits in back while Ed and Frits talk science all night. In the glar­ing light of day, Ed shoots Kodaks of the cutting. Alpha's demise fails to make an impression on the sixteen-year-old, whose uncle conceals the weight of their deed.

"In late September, once Schulman has counted and recounted every ring on the polished slab, the press office at the university announces, 'UA Finds Oldest Living Thing.' They say nothing about the thing being dead. Dr. Schulman has also, they crow, debunked the antiquity of El Arbol del Tule in Oaxaca. Newspapers across the United States pick up the press release, which includes a blurb on the utility of tree rings for meteorological 'backcasting.' It helps that 1956 is a bad drought year. The Office of the President, delighted with the publicity, congratulates Schulman personally.

"Not everyone is happy that dwarf pines have pulled rank on giant se­quoias. The San Francisco Chronicle runs a snarky, casually racist opinion. Ancient bristlecones look 'terrible-half-dead, with little if any foliage, warped and writhing roots, and twisted, stubby branches.' Schulman's bristlecone stand compares to a redwood forest 'as an Indian shell mound does to the Cathedral of Cologne.' At least it's still in California.

"The formal announcement of the discovery -- again without acknowl­edgment of arboricide -- appears simultaneously in Schulman's Dendro­climatic Changes in Semiarid America. This magnum opus, long in the making, contains analyses of one-third of a million rings. The bristlecone data is so new that it appears as 'Appendix C: Millennia-Old Pine Trees Sampled in 1954 and 1955.' In the acknowledgments to this technical volume, full of standard deviation calculations, correlation coefficients, and hand-drawn graphs, Edmund says his 'indebtedness to Alsie' is 'in­deed great.' He thanks her for seventeen years of discussing 'so many research problems.'

"Publicity requests come thick and fast that fall. National Geographic is suddenly very interested. They'll send a photographer as soon as he drafts a story. In the meantime, Schulman makes the two-day drive back to the Whites to meet a cameraman from Life, the other leading pictorial mag­azine. He poses for a series of black-and-white shots. In one, he stands heroically, wearing a straw fedora, while screwing an extra-long incre­ment borer into a hulk of a pine. In another, hat off, Schulman crouches at the remains of Pine Alpha, touching the stump with both hands, with the High Sierra in the background. Uncharacteristically, he looks happy. Life doesn't include either portrait in its brief article, 'The Oldest Thing Alive,' which reassures readers that cores can be taken without harming the tree. Only a 'pinprick,' Schulman tells Tucson's evening paper."



Jared Farmer


Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees


Basic Books


Copyright 2022 by Jared Farmer


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