Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bristlecones - Gaunt Gnarly Survivors of Millennia

The Ancient Bristlecone Pine is a survivor. Dated by ring-count, individual plants may reach up to 5000 years in age--the oldest known living things. These strange trees live only under certain conditions, far up the slopes of mountains in the American Southwest, at or near the tree line.

In California, they are found in Inyo County, in the White Mountains, at about 9800-11000 feet, just West of the Nevada border, and East of the Owens Valley, due North by Northeast of the town of Bishop.

There are difficulties in reaching the Bristlecone Pine Forest. Most automobiles don't function properly at that altitude, and starved carburetors will often peter out. My 1983 Ford f250 pick-up nearly didn't make it the two times I visited there. Also, the thin air can make you feel light-headed and easily fatigued. I'm not an experienced hiker, but I have good natural stamina (or used to); but something odd happens to you at high altitudes: You tend to lose track of time, and after 15 minutes of casual activity, you suddenly realize, looking at your watch, that an hour and a half has passed!

Photograph I took near the Bristlecone Pine Forest Reserve in 1987.
(4x5 Wista, Tri-X bw film, f22 at 1.5 seconds, red filter)

Bristlecone Pines have become a favorite subject of large format landscape or nature photographers. Countless devotees make the trek up the White Mountain road to scrabble around on the white shale slopes looking for good shots of these strange trees.

Physically, the trees exhibit very unusual qualities. The wood is extremely dense--almost like rock--very resinous. Because the trees grow so slowly, much of the structure of the wood is often, in fact, no longer living. Trees which have been dead for hundreds of years stand as gaunt sculptures against the deep blue of the clear sky. Thin strips of living tissue connect the roots to small bunches of leaves.

The trees develop lyrical twistings and gnarlings which seem to express the extraordinary tension between the difficult environments in which they persist, and their intense will to live. When the bark wears off, the naked wood reveals narrow, sinuous grooves, smooth to the touch, but with razor-like rifts which can easily cut you like a knife-edge. The wood is so dense, that trying to cut or saw it can ruin ordinary equipment. Even coring tools break off.

Weather up at these altitudes can be brutal. Winds at 90-110 mph are common. Extreme storms and cold test the limits of all growing things. The Bristlecones have evolved over millions of years to withstand these hardships, and to thrive. Life is incredibly durable, and persistent, and adaptable. At the top of the genetic chain, man is the only creature tasked to understand and appreciate these miraculous developments. We can appreciate and admire nature. Bristlecone Pines are the living expression of that effort and adaptability over time. Their beauty is a testament to their will to survive.


Kirby Olson said...

I've often heard about these trees. I liked reading this.

Do woodpeckers break their beaks on wood this rocky? Do birds even go up that high?

It is strange how many things we've discovered over the last century about the natural world.

For most of our history we simply warred with nature for survival. Now we have all this time for contemplation.

It's a good time to be alive.

Curtis Faville said...

There is a bird which apparently eats the seeds from the Bristlecone cones. This is how the seeds are spread.

There's concern that the population is under stress, and may be dying out.

They're protected in certain areas. They even restrict hiking to trails, and if they catch you scrabbling up the slopes to get closer looks, they'll kick you out.

I got a couple of shots by violating this rule, but I didn't hurt anything. There are people, though, who will vandalize. Destructive impulse--I don't understand it. Like wanting to go out and kill animals for sport--instead of food.

I always thought Hemingway's safaris were a desecration. Of course he thought tracking beasts and shooting them with big high-powered rifles was he-manly and courageous. I doubt it.