Bristlecone pines paint lessons from the past

Though scientists once named giant sequoias our planet’s oldest trees, it’s now understood that to discover the ultimate patriarchs, one must exit the Sierra and trek 100 miles east, another 4,000 feet up, and enter an obscure range on the California/Nevada border.

Bristlecone pines are the true forest primeval.

The White Mountain Range, though a mere 60 miles long and 10 miles wide, still soars to a height of 14,252 feet. This range is the same age as the Sierra, uplifted about 2 million years ago. But its rocks are far older, including raised swaths of ancient seabed. That’s fortunate for the bristlecones, because pale dolomite – a kind of limestone – is an excellent growth medium for them, but not much else.

So now, in a zone just below treeline, groves of trees with branches shaped like vivid green bottle-brushes sigh in a cool, sub-alpine breeze.

Many of them are only about 30 feet high, yet an impressive number have reached an age of more than 40 centuries. Sprouted as seedlings back when many of Egypt’s pyramids were being built, they stood as mature trees when Socrates chatted with Plato.

Now they are etched pedestals of eroded wood, strapped with bands of living bark that rise to twigs that yet brandish green needles. Their weathered grandeur is a marvel to behold.

After their ancient status began to be studied and grasped, just 65 years ago, they began to win protection from managers of the land where they stood – inside Inyo National Forest. Today designated hiking trails wreath two of the largest preserved groves, a campground and a visitor center.

U.S. Forest Service interpretive specialist Lauren Hollen stands outside the visitor center at Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and regales tourists with fun facts laced with her own brand of stand-up lines.

“Bristlecones grow so slowly, they only pile on tree rings at the rate of one inch per century,” she says, holding her thumb and forefinger apart for emphasis. “That makes this wood so dense, bugs and even fungus find it hard to attack. Lightning strikes, heart rot and erosion are about the only things that can kill them.”

Hollen passes around a small, dark slab of wood whose weight makes one think of marble. She explains that tree ring patterns from 4,000-year-old trees have been matched and linked to the rings in downed tree trunks that are much older, taking the science of “dendrochronology” or tree-ring-dating back more than 12,000 years. It is so accurate, that the process was used to fine-tune the more modern radio-carbon dating method.

“So we know this hunk of bristlecone is about 7,000 years old,” she says. “Now, you can’t go into the Louvre and even touch the Mona Lisa without facing serious consequences. But I’m going to put this impressive piece of nature’s art right into your hands. You can even sniff it, and smell resin made from sunlight about seven millennia ago … at the dawn of human civilization.”

The mountain redoubt of the bristlecones is found by driving 13 miles east up steep and winding Highway 168 from the town of Big Pine, and then 10 miles more up a steep and winding paved road that winds along the spine of the range. Then you’ll be at one of the highest visitor centers in the United States, at 10,100 feet. The air up here is thin, so you acquire less oxygen per breath – an excellent reason to take it easy as you first arrive. Days spent at this altitude are needed to fully adjust.

That suited my wife and me just fine – to stroll leisurely through the groves with ample time to admire the trees, compose photographs and study the interpretive signs and brochures was precisely what we had in mind in a mid-July outing.

The high elevation of the White Mountains and minimal glow from the small and distant towns make almost any place here good for admiring stars and meteor showers (Perseids is coming next Sunday-Aug. 13). On our visit, we were treated to a spectacular full moon.

First on our agenda was the aptly named Discovery Trail, which wends for a half-mile up a pale dolomite slope, then gently descends back to the lot. The route and its signage constitute a primer for understanding the phenomenon of the trees. This slope was where Dr. Edmund Schulman, a dendrochronologist with the University of Arizona, found the first 4,000-year-old tree – he dubbed it Pine Alpha – back in the 1950s. He realized that south-facing slopes, where bristlecones were starved of moisture and nutrients, produced a slower-growing, denser and more self-protective wood. In short, a tree with the spine to stand up to all the slings and arrows that the millennia can inflict — including windstorm, avalanche, hard freezes, earthquake, drought and fire.

Or as a mountaineer friend of mine once put it: “Live hard, live long.”

We noted one ancient tree, blasted and scorched by lightning last year, that still bravely displayed new cones tipped with the crimson sacs of pollen. As we contemplated that evidence of durable fecundity, the mountain skies unloaded without warning icy pellets of slush from a dark cloud.

Lesson learned: Always carry a windbreaker up there. And plenty of water, since the visitor center does not supply any.

The 1-mile Bristlecone Cabins path leads to structures from a 19th century mine that harvested galena (a lead/silver ore). But the pièce de résistance is the 4.25-mile Methuselah Trail, winding among the very oldest trees, which clutch at the eroding soil and spiral up into a cerulean, high-desert sky like frozen flames of gold. Where the bristlecones have toppled, their fallen snags endure, presenting the knotted arabesques of their root structure.

Despite its short length, its mere 800 feet of elevation gain, and the attraction of passing the preserve’s only tree close to 5,000 years of age, the Methuselah Trail is no easy hike. “Welcome to the four-mile marathon,” my wife, Dawn Garcia, gasped, near the end, recalling the fatigue of the race she’d run in March.

Those prepared to test the shocks on their car can press on, driving slowly 12 more miles up a washboarded dirt road to the Patriarch Grove. This is by far the best sculpture garden of live bristlecones and their snags. The trees here are younger but grow larger – thanks to more sunlight and precipitation at 11,300 feet elevation. Yet also, they’re more exposed to savage alpine winds and weather, which blasts the tawny snags into more intricate and eroded shapes. A stark beauty derives from such resistance to destruction.

“I feel like I’m picking up a message from the bristlecones,” my wife said, following our two half-mile walks in the Patriarch Grove. “I think they tell us to be calm, to be patient, and to endure. Find a way to thrive wherever you are planted, and don’t sweat the small stuff.”