Ancients in the White Mountains: Searching for Methuselah

 

Growing at a glacial pace, Bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) are among the oldest living organisms on earth. In a grove tucked high in the White Mountains in California is a grove named The Methuselah Grove after its most famous member.  Methuselah, at 4,847 years old, and a newly discovered Bristlecone at 5,066 years, are still thriving in the White Mountains.  Methuselah germinated around 2832 BC. He’s older than Babylon, the Pyramids and Stonehenge.

The exact location of Methuselah is only known by a few Dendrochronology botanists, and because of the chaotic growing patterns of the trees, not even seasoned arborists would be able to identity the old trees from the young; only a core sample can tell this.

WP_20140528_11_08_47_RawBristlecones have a fairly broad geographic distribution, but the unique habitat of the White Mountains gives them a protection their kind in other parts of the world do not have the luxury of.  This area of the White Mountains is Xeric- extremely high altitude with virtually no annual rainfall, making living up there nearly impossible for most plant species and any insect life. This leaves the trees with no predators, no chance of rot or other plant and animal life killing them.

The environment is hostile even to human visitors- the altitude and dry air draw the energy out of you. Everything is weak at that altitude, and it's precisely this advantage that has allowed them to live for so long. An ecological niche filled with the perfect species. Their only real predator is lightning.

John Muir visited these trees once, although he never knew that he had seen the oldest trees on earth. He assumed they were a few hundred years old. He wrote

“there is an infinite variety of arching forms, standing free or in groups, leaning away from or toward each other in curious architectural structures, — innumerable tassels drooping under the arches and radiating above them, the outside glowing in the light, masses of deep shade beneath, giving rise to effects marvelously beautiful, — while on the roughest ledges of crumbling limestone are lowly old giants, five or six feet in diameter, that have braved the storms of more than a thousand years. But, whether old or young, sheltered or exposed to the wildest gales, this tree is ever found to be irrepressibly and extravagantly picturesque, offering a richer and more varied series of forms to the artist than any other species I have yet seen.”

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The internet does have the answer to the location of Methuselah, if you look closely enough. No esoteric knowledge is needed. But with any remote treasures such as petroglyphs and other objects of interest that cannot be reasonably protected by gates or other security, the location of Methuselah must be kept secret. There are plenty of old trees in the grove visitors can see. Methuselah in particular, because of it’s status, is likely to be inscribed and have things done to it by thrill seekers just for the sake of doing so. It is not hard to imagine a tasteless couple would want to inscribe their names into the most near-eternal tree on earth, or that someone would take a piece of it to sell on the internet, or a Wiccan would cut some off a branch to make into a kind of token. People have the oddest personal motives for bring destructive to majestic things.

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But I will say this about how I found it: topography. If you’re a botanist or a respectful adventurer, it can be figured out. The small clippings of pictures of the patriarch in the NY Times can be cross-referenced with the topography of the grove along with the gathering of a few details to pinpoint the location. It took me a couple hours, but it’s doable with a little deductive reasoning.

I could have posted the guide I made, but instead I destroyed it after. Sorry, but I don’t trust the internet with it.  And no, none of these pictures are of Methuselah.

WP_20140528_10_53_39_RawWhen I found the ancient, the botanist in me came out first, and I examined the tree top to bottom. The tree was developing pine cones, even at it’s age.  And after the initial excitement faded, I sat in the silence next to him and took in the environment he had been etching a living out in for five millennia. Quite. Incredible still. A chapel eons in the making. My own breathing sounded loud and foreign. My entire lifespan is a blink of an eye in its life, and my children’s great-great-great grandchildren will still be able to visit it, exactly as it was when I did.

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The forest of ancients is an odd purgatory of sorts. It doesn’t seem that remote of a location. But in these gullies at the top of the White Mountains, time stands still.

This is one of the extreme edges of the diverse biology on the planet, which only a handful of people have seen before.

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My Instagram is @twain289e

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The search for the oldest tree in the world!  That's quite an adventure, Tim!  Thanks for sharing.

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

Incredible Tim! Welcome to TG. I hope we see a lot more from you in the future!

If you want a thing done, ask a busy man.

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