The Bristlecone Pine

Pine trees dot the California landscape like freckles. They cluster in patches, and survive in the oddest places.

Some years ago, I fingered one of the oldest pines in the world during an adventure in California’s White Mountains with my husband John, who died at the very young age of 47.

John had taught me to backpack, and we loved the California Sierra Nevada Mountain Range—the longest and highest continuous mountain range in the continental United States.

We began each expedition from the east side, spending one night at midrange to acclimate, before we hiked over a pass on day two into pristine territory. As we climbed, we traversed terrain suited to a variety of pines—the Jeffrey, Sugar, Lodgepole, and Western White Pine—pine upon pine—until we were above timberline, in a world where 16 inch golden trout made ready meals and stars could be caressed from the warmth of our sleeping bags.

On this particular adventure, we had been trekking through Death Valley and Saline Valley, two basins east of the Sierras and south and east of the White Mountains. We were traveling in my father’s wildly outfitted Land Rover. The Rover looked like an ancient space vehicle—painted bright red, with a pop-up tent carved out of the roof, and removable shelves flung out like wings from its windows and doors.

The first night, we were chased out of Death Valley by a sudden, vicious sand storm. Nestled in the tent above the Rover, we smelled the dust as it heralded the tempest to come. We pulled the pop up down and drew the wings in, like a frightened turtle, and escaped as fast as we could—sand and dust swirling past our faces through cracked door linings, leaving a fine coating inside. Then in Saline Valley, we were hit with a snowstorm … cows trembled in the desert, their heads and backsides doused in white.

Despite the less than stellar weather, we were in the vicinity and so we decided to ascend the White Mountains to view the Bristlecone pines—among the oldest living organisms on earth. One, measured in 2012 by a dendrochronologist from the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, was found to be 5,062 years old. They grow at an elevation between 5,000 and 12,000 feet—a bit inconvenient to reach (which may help account for their longevity).

At first, I was less than awed by the scrubby things. They’re short, stubby, and bent with age—nothing like their towering cousins in the Sierras. But as my husband talked about the trees’ longevity—some were alive near the beginning of recorded human history and endure still—my awe, and my sense of how privileged I was to be there and see them, grew.

I have a long way to go to do all I can to care for this earth. In some ways, I fail miserably as an environmentalist. But I care about this world with which we have been entrusted.

I’ve been privileged to see a great survivor, the Bristlecone Pine. But this earth is at a critical juncture. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the world is facing a mass extinction of species today—the sixth in earth’s history—but “Unlike the mass extinction events of geological history, the current extinction challenge is one for which a single species – ours – appears to be almost wholly responsible.” The causes are multiple—habitat destruction, wildlife trade, and climate change—but once a species is lost, it is gone forever.

What can I do?

I’m not sure yet, but I know I cannot just stand by and let greed or apathy relentlessly annihilate the plants and animals of this amazing earth. I want to be a better steward. So despite my inadequacies, I’m on a quest to find ways to help save some of the species that remain.

 

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