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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The Pine Trees of My Childhood

The pure scent of pine trees and the terrible stench of smog—these opposites planted the first small seeds of love for the environment in my heart.

I grew up in California east of Los Angeles in the 1950s. At that time, the fading rim of the LA megalopolis encroached like a consuming alien on the hot desert edge where I lived. As Los Angeles grew, it ate into the orange groves that were once ubiquitous in the valleys, and it devoured the surrounding hillsides and deserts.

Finally, it ate into the air, as well.

As the heat rose in late spring and summer in the 1950s, Southern California smog became a problem of London-before-coal-laws proportions. I remember deep aches in my chest after playing outside in the smog. Frequent smog alerts shortened school days at my elementary school and held us children captive, inside.

Old people died from the pollutants in the air.

LA’s smog descended upon our stucco houses, smothering their soft yellows, whites, or pastel blues. The haze depressed me as I grew, with its dullness, its irritants, and its poisons: reminders of dimmed colors, lost orientation, and smog smothered dreams.

Whole mountain ranges disappeared behind smog’s poisonous veil.

In winter Mount Baldy, part of the San Bernardino mountain range located due north of Ontario, my hometown, was the glory of the region. In late spring and summer, though, Mount Baldy vanished for days, even weeks on end. If I was an early riser I might catch a mystic glimpse of it, before smog once again obliterated it from sight.

The camp grounds on Mount Baldy were at a sufficiently high altitude, though, that even in the 1950s, we could camp above the heavy smog. My father and I did this on occasion, rising into fresh mountain air, into the crisp California night, into the stars, where the Milky Way felt like a touchable entity, the stars were bears and seven sisters, and they could be located by a small girl and her father equipped with a star-gazer map.

My favorite memories with my father are of us camping there, snuggled side-by-side in our sleeping bags—tent free, so we could study the stars.

In this private world, pine trees hovered over us like friendly, sheltering giants. As my father and I lay beneath the stars, we talked about astronomy, watched meteoroids flash across our view as they entered the atmosphere, discussed the misery of smog and its destructive effect on the natural world, and talked of how nice it was to camp high in the mountains, until I fell asleep, knowing that I would awake to the familiar scent of my father fixing bacon and eggs, and of the pure mountain scent of pine sap.

The pines where we camped had not yet succumbed to the effects of the smog. This toxin would soon rise from the valleys below, though. Like creeping tendrils of wild vines entangle, bend, and break structures, slowly turning them to ruins, smog would soon rise and poison the trees even at these high elevations, turning them brown and making them die.

All this destruction happened in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, before humankind regained its sense and acted to stop the devastation.

By the 1960s, the frightening effects of smog on California’s trees, and particularly its pines, were becoming understood. By that time, smog had killed 46,000 acres of pine trees in our San Bernardino forest. Many died—but not all.

By the 1990s, environmental guidelines had begun to heal our sickened air. Some people resented these rules, imposed on home incinerators, industries, and cars. (Most disliked? The catalytic converter.) Despite their outcries, though, the regulations saved our mountain pines, at least for the time being.

I am truly indebted to the scientists, environmentalists, and activists of the mid-20th century who combined their efforts to save human lives and the remaining pines by enacting effective anti-smog regulations.

The smog of my childhood was visible and stank. The grey death stench of climate change is invisible, but it is just as real. Its shadow shows in the bleaching of our coral reefs and in the melting of our polar ice caps.

To make a difference today, we need to cooperate with our international neighbors on climate change strategies. We need to work together to resist efforts to undo climate change policies and regulations.

Although today I still struggle to know how to have an impact as an environmentalist, my concern for the natural world began when I was a child living with the terrible effects of people-made smog, on me and on the pine trees.

I struggle to know what I can do, and one way I’m seeking to grapple with the problems faced by our earth is by writing this blog.

A great deal has already been lost, but not all. We have worked together before and we have been successful. We can still heed the warning of the pine trees of my childhood, and protect this precious planet—if we will.