This is the place to find trees of an almost unbelievable age. Not far from the visitor's center is a tree which was around 775 years old...When King Tut was laid to rest in all his Egyptian splendor some 3,325 years ago. Today that 775 year old tree is still alive. 4,560 years ago, construction began on the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops). The Oldest of the Old, a tree known as Methuselah had begun its life 200+ years earlier. This truly Ancient One lives to this day. In 2001, at the age of 4,767 years old, it well may be the oldest living thing on the planet. Methuselah, even at its advanced age, is capable of reproduction. In 1972, a small cone was found growing from Methuselah. Members of the Park Service carefully harvested the solitary pine cone. It was found to contain 96 seeds. Each seed was tenderly planted in a growth medium and amazingly, each seed sprouted a Bristlecone Pine seedling. This, from a tree which is almost 4 3/4 millennia old.
It seems counter-intuitive that something so old would be found over 10,000 ' up on a mountainside in an atmosphere containing 2/3 of the atmospheric pressure found at sea level. Bathed in harsh ultraviolet light, its roots sink wide and deep into an inhospitable rocky dolomite soil. The growing season is a scant six weeks with annual rainfall at less than a foot, this being the definition of a desert environment. These harsh conditions are responsible for the longevity of these particular trees. Other Bristlecone Pines which grow tall and wide in the moister, more nutritious soil at Patriarch Grove appear to have a life span of only 1,000 - 1,500 years, about the age of the Giant Sequoia Trees to the north. The truly Ancient Bristlecone Pines grow very slowly, perhaps an inch in circumference every century. Energy must be conserved for survival so as growth suffers, longevity increases. Interestly, a single Bristlecone Pine absorbs only 100 gallons of water a year. In nearby Las Vegas, per capita consumption is close to 300 gallons of water per day.
The rings of a Bristlecone Pine can be read like a book. Rings taken from a coring of Methuselah indicated that something occurred in 1627 B.C.E. For some reason, ring growth during that summer was prematurely halted. The ring showed damage from freezing. Further investigation revealed that 3,629 years ago, the volcano Santorini which made up the island of Thera in the Agean Sea erupted. The eruption, which was much greater than the Krakatoa eruption of 1883, led to the destruction the Minoan civilization and caused a mini-ice age dropping world-wide temperatures for nearly a decade.
Pretty much the only thing that can kill one of these Ancients is a direct lightning strike...Or man. In 1964, the US Park Service actually permitted a graduate student searching for evidence of past glaciers to cut down one of the Ancients (over on Wheeler Peak in nearby Nevada) to determine its precise age after the coring tube he was using broke. The tree, known as Prometheus, which had a tiny patch of Bristlecone needles (which themselves live for 40 years), was sacrificed in the name of science. The tiny patch of green had its thin lifeline of bark severed doing what centuries of abuse from the elements and Mother Nature could not accomplish...Killing Prometheus. Later, it was determined that the tree was 4,950 years old. It's quite possible that the graduate student killed the oldest living thing on the planet.
Since that unfortunate occurrence, the Park Service has done much to ensure the survival of the remaining Ancient Bristlecone Pines. Camping is permitted only in established campgrounds (group camps on CA 168, individual sites 12 miles into the park). Beyond the individual site campground is the Shulman Grove where the information and visitor's center is and the Most Ancient can be found. Just don't ask where Methuselah is located. It's location is a secret. Were it to become general knowledge, everyone would want their picture taken next to it, further stressing the tree by compacting what passes for soil around its roots. Pesky souvenir hunters couldn't help but to take a little momento, be it a sliver of wood, a plucked pine needle or perhaps even sever the thin lifeline of bark. Bottom Line: Don't ask; They won't tell! (Don't ask me, either!)
More Bristlecone Pine Photos
I camped at the primitive Grandview (individual sites) Campground. At
just over 8,000' in elevation, the temperature is 25 degrees cooler than
in Bishop, CA a short hour away in Owens Valley. Shorts and T shirt were
replaced with long pants and a sweatshirt. Out of the box came the blue-knit
woolen hat and gloves. Rather than a cooling beverage, I opted for a nice
cup of hot tea. The temperature was a bracing 42 degrees at 6:00 AM, the
morning after Labor Day, 2001.
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