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Owens Valley Part 5: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Updated: Nov 28, 2018

Tucked away on the unsuspecting White Mountain stand the oldest trees on Earth, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines, the oldest of which is over 5,000 years old. There are two main groves by which people can experience them, the Patriarch Grove and the Schulman Grove. The Patriarch Grove is significantly smaller, and really just one hillside though it contains the largest Bristlecone on Earth: the Patriarch Tree.

The Patriarch Tree

I wake up at my usual 5:30 A.M and go up a half-mile loop up the hillside of the Patriarch Grove, which has a overlook onto the Cottonwood Basin. This “forest” is unlike any I’ve seen before: there aren’t any shrubs or brush or variety in flora; just this living cemetery of these otherworldly trees erupting out of the rock. It's a rather inhospitable place for life, really. These pines are growing at about 11,000 feet above sea level, the last trees before the treeline, after which no tree can grow. The hillside doesn’t even have soil so much as just rock. Somehow out of these boulders the bristlecone pines make their home. In fact, it’s because of this poor, highly alkaline, dolomite “soil” that they can live as long as they do. Bristlecone Pines grow incredibly slowly; rather than growing tall, they grow dense. Through this density they’re able to resist almost all fire, fungus, disease, and insects. Additionally, fire is rare on this cold mountain, and the lack of brush provides limited fuel for a wildfire. Because the pines grow so slowly however, they must grow in a place where there is absolutely no competition from other plants: on an alkaline, rocky hillside of a desert mountain in California, 11,000 in the air (Great Basin Bristlecone Pines also grow in select areas of Nevada and Utah, but the oldest specimens are on White Mountain).

They’re not very tall per se, most of them between about 15-30 feet, but they’re very distinctive, particularly the older ones. In the first 3,000 or so years of life, they look relatively normal, but as the millennia wear on, their bark erodes (not decays, erodes) from wind and rain. They become twisted and gnarled, grotesquely beautiful, like huge wooden octopuses, as grand as they are nightmarish. And sometimes all but one small branch will be bare, but that one small branch has a strip of bark like a skunk stripe leading up to a few tendrils of needles. Such trees are technically still alive and growing!

I have a very special piece for this morning’s sunrise, the piece that kicked off this whole music + nature obsession on a cross-country road trip last fall: The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi, probably Italy’s foremost composer of the last three centuries that wasn't primarily an opera composer.

Each movement is about a particular grove of pine trees in the eternal city, Rome, and for this sunrise I’m listening to the third and fourth movements. The third movement is called “Pines of the Janiculum” and is a nocturne set on Janiculum Hill. It depicts a moonlit night with the singing of a nightingale. The piece begins with a brief but lush piano solo amid a background of strings, that provides a canvas for our nightingale, the clarinet. It plays a melody that it more or less repeats three times like a birdcall. This movement primarily features woodwinds and strings, and has a magic to it, perfectly capturing the romance of a warm summer night on the Mediterranean. With respect to temperature, elevation, and distance I’m about as far as can be from a warm summer night on the Mediterranean, but the movement is appropriately beautiful and demure for dawn.

The fourth movement is entitled “Pines of the Appian Way,” a road through Rome that I remember from high school Latin class as being perhaps the most important thoroughfare into the ancient republic. This movement depicts the ancient Roman army returning home from distant battles, victorious but weary, through the misty pines lining the famous road at daybreak. The movement begins without pause from the previous one and starts with the cellos and basses in a very low march-like figure – the same two notes repeated over and over again (our friend the tritone like in Saturn from Part I) like the thumping of boots on stone. It has an ominous quality that is only accentuated by mysterious murmurs in the bass clarinet and muted horns. The strings enter with a repeated figure that seem to gnaw at the brain like aches and pains of each step of the fatigued soldiers. An English horn comes in with an exotic flair like a snake charmer, the spoils of war perhaps. From that come in the bassoons and horns in a militaristic melody that elicit a response from offstage trumpets, like bugles in the unseen distance. It builds into what I can only describe as the most glorious and triumphant two minutes of music that I’ve ever heard in my life. The soaring fanfares brass blend imperceptibly with the king of instruments: the colossal pipe organ, whose vibrations are felt rattling through your entire skeletal system (at least when listening live), while the timpani is pounding the footsteps of the approaching army. It’s the ultimate piece to capture the sheer splendor of the rising sun. To listen to it among these ancient pines, who have been alive for Rome’s entire existence, is an experience second only to listening to it at the Appian Way itself.

I get to the Schulman Grove, which is an area quite a bit larger that the Patriarch Grove and has the official visitor center for the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. It has a short 1-mile trail, as well as the 4.2 mile Methuselah Trail, that takes one to the site of Methuselah, a 4,850 year old tree that was for many years thought to be the oldest tree in the world, until an even older tree from the same grove was discovered in 2012. This new oldest tree is 5,068 years old, having germinated in 3050 BC.

A bristlecone pine on the way to the Schulman Grove

My knee and calves are still a wreck from yesterday's trek to White Mountain Peak (Read Part 4), so I decide to do the shorter trail to see how it goes. On it there’s one tree in particular that has a striking resemblance to the tree that trapped Hexxus, the pollution monster in the movie Fern Gully: the Last Rainforest, an animated film from the early 90s that you might think is Disney until you remember that it has a much more overt and meaningful message than anything Disney was making at that time.

After the relatively short hike, hailing thunderstorms roll through, giving me more opportunity to rest and ice my knee while I wait for a few hours. When it finally seems to let up, I go down the Methuselah trail, which winds through the hills, offering sweeping views of the valleys of Nevada to the east.

Eventually it leads down to the Methuselah grove where the oldest of the old live. Neither the Methuselah Tree nor the new oldest tree are explicitly identified, as to protect them, but they are somewhere here. Amid the now cloudy weather, with thunder continuing to rumble, the trees look especially alien.

5,068 years old. The more I think about that number, the more it boggles my mind. That still-living tree was already alive for 2,000 years before the founding of Rome, was alive before the pyramids were built, was alive before our species invented the first alphabet. Before Stonehenge, before sailing was invented, before the last wooly mammoths perished, before horses were domesticated, before Gilgamesh, before the events of the Illiad and the Odyssey; so many civilizations and empires have risen and fallen throughout the last five millennia and throughout it all, these trees have been here, growing millimeter by millimeter on this remote mountain in the desert. The approximate population of the world at 3,000 B.C. was about 15 million, less than half the population of California today. What it must have been like I can’t even imagine. When was the first time these trees saw a human I wonder.

Not only do these trees live for five thousand years, but even when they die, many remain standing, as there is little to no fungi to decompose their trunks. So many of these still-standing but dead trees are up to 7,000 years old. Furthermore, the fallen dead logs on the ground don’t decompose particularly quickly either, and there have been fallen Bristlecone Pine logs that are up to 12,000 years old. 12,000 years old! That takes us into the last ice age. By looking at the tree rings of these living, dead, and fallen trees, we have a tree ring record that goes back 12,000 years, making them essential to dendrochronology, the study of the earth via tree rings. In fact it’s through these trees that we were able to calibrate the system of carbon dating, which made many artifacts up to 1,000 years older than previously thought, completely debunking reigning theories regarding cultural diffusion throughout the Mediterranean and Europe; "The trees that rewrote history," as they're sometimes called.

Walking among them makes me feel appropriately insignificant, my entire life but a momentary flash compared to these living fossils. It reminds me of a coworker I had when I worked at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. One of the counselors I was in charge of was Wiccan (i.e. a legit witch), and believed that all living things had souls, with which one could commune. He had joked that Wiccans were really just friendly treehuggers, which I didn’t think he meant literally until I happened upon him alone in the forest literally hugging a tree. After that he explained his religion to a greater degree, which was fascinating. While I’m not sure I believe that all trees have a communable spirit, it really does make you think. When you adopt that notion, suddenly sitting there staring out at all of these trees with them all staring back takes the experience to a different level. The stories these trees would tell if they could talk.

I stop to take a breather before leaving the Methuselah Grove. A light rain now falling, other hikers are few and far between. It’s just the ancients and me. These types of experiences are so much different when you’re alone versus when you’re with a group of people, or even just one other person. There’s something incredibly special about being there, just myself, basking in the stillness and absorbing the presence of these impossibly resilient trees. Whenever the going gets tough in life, I should aim to be like the Bristlecone Pine, eternally resolute and tenacious in their quest for self-preservation.

I put on the second movement of the Pines of Rome. This movement is called, “Pines near a Catacomb.” Over a pad of quiet strings, muted horns in octaves play a chant-like melody as soft as an echo of a memory. An offstage trumpet sings a [notoriously difficult] solo that also takes a tune from an old Latin hymn. The climax of the piece is led by trombones, who take these old hymns and put them on full blast (as trombones are wont to do), over strings that have a repeated figure using modal harmonies with a millennia-old feel to them. The final musical gesture is in the bassoons and contrabassoon, the lowest instrument in the orchestra. There’s a subterranean grandeur to the movement, an ode to the all but forgotten voices of the dead, billowing out of this catacomb with the stories of our ancestors. On this steep hillside, many of the trees have fallen and died, their roots finally submitting to the harshness of their surroundings and making the place feel like an arboreal necropolis of sorts. With no other plant life besides the bristlecone pines, it's like an elephant graveyard for these marvelous trees.

I got back to the now deserted parking lot and made my way back down into the valley for the final legs of the trip: the upper Owens Valley, including the unusual rock formation of Devil’s Postpile National Monument, the ghost town of Bodie State Park, the gorgeous Mono Lake, and alpine Tenaya Lake of Yosemite National Park.

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