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    How To Live Forever By Being Mostly Dead

    Written by

    Alicia Puglionesi

    Image: Mark A. Wilson/Wikimedia

    This summer Motherboard contributor Alicia Puglionesi is traveling around the United States visiting the oldest plants in the country. Her thoughts are collected irregularly in the short series Ancient Plants.

    There are plenty of ways to avoid having a spiritual experience in nature. Bring a cell phone.  Read about other peoples' spiritual experiences on the internet. Dress inappropriately for the weather. Lose an important personal item and persist in searching for it despite its obvious irretrievability.

    Speaking of searching and irretrievability, this summer I am looking for very old plants. I often get confused about my age. Right now it seems irrelevant, as I am neither particularly young nor impressively old; I forget it until someone asks, and then I fumble for a few seconds. We move through the world with certain unconscious parameters, the behind-the-eyes sense of ourselves as stable units bounded in time and space, and mine didn't change much between age 18 and my mid-20s.

    Suddenly, a few years ago, I started feeling like I was 27. I wasn't yet, chronologically, but that's how I felt until I thought about it for a moment. I guess these perceptions come and go in life—falling behind, jumping ahead, looping back around. Many terms exist to reconcile non-linear senses of time with the agreed-upon forward progression. A person can be “wise for their years” or an “old soul.” The concept of déjà vu is taken seriously in certain circles, although it's hard to say without adopting a Keanu Reeves inflection. The expression “young at heart,” which is a terrible expression, is terrible because it makes the unsettling mismatch between experienced self and “actual” self into a bland platitude.

    How does time pass for the oldest organisms in the world? This relates to the problem of comprehending “deep time,” which we can't do. At least certain plants have been alive for five thousand years, which establishes a kind of limit against which to calibrate our limited awareness: the pyramids, Gilgamesh, agriculture, etc. You can get up to speed on the past 5,000 years in middle school history. But how long was it actually? Could 5,000 be merely an arithmetical extension of the human lifespan, let's say, 80 generations lined up end-to-end? Then there's the matter of changing life expectancies. Historical demographers will say that people, on average, used to die at 30, but if you take out all the infant and child mortality, it's more like fifty-five. By other accounts, certain ancient people lived for hundreds of years, but I've never been good with Bible math.

    Methuselah Grove, via Wikipedia

    The Methuselah tree is the second-oldest known tree in California, and also in the rest of the world. I went to the White Mountains to see it, but didn't actually see it. I'm not very goal-oriented. We were up on this mountain, and there was a bolt of lightning, and hail started dropping from the sky. I thought it would be a good idea to take shelter, but, because it is one of the most inhospitable places on earth, there wasn't any way to take shelter except maybe by pressing against a rock. So we put our sweaters over our heads (it was very cold at this point) and ran two miles back to the well-appointed visitor center established for under-prepared tree tourists. I realized, once in the warm embrace of informational wall text, that I'd dropped my copy of the rental car keys somewhere along the trail. I left my address and a drawing of the key with a particularly ruddy park ranger. When I got back to the east coast, the key was in my mailbox.

    I don't feel bad at all about missing Methuselah. There's something impressive about a nation that builds paved roads up 9,000 vertical feet of mountainside, hauling lumber and ductwork and wires and light bulbs, in order to present interesting facts about nature to its intrepid citizens (and return their missing personal items). The interpretive material is very insistent on calling the trees in this forest “The Ancients.” Signs posted around picnic areas and trails implore you to “Respect the Ancients. Don't Litter.” They (the trees) have been here for thousands of years—so yes, perhaps they have a communal identity. Perhaps they sit in council and issue irate proclamations about the state of global affairs. Cell phone reception up there is just fine.

    The oldest bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) are long-lived because they've adopted a very gradual form of life. They grow as little as they possibly can, which is fine because they receive less than a foot of water each year, mostly in the form of driving winter snows. Ordinary pine trees shed their needles every season; bristlecones may keep the same needles for 40 years. Their wood is dense and resistant to insects and disease. Older trees appear denuded of bark, but a narrow strip connects their roots to their few living branches. In between is dead, inert matter. They do not burn.

    I am not a fan of the desert. It seems unnecessarily brutal. Being a person is a huge disadvantage in the desert, where there is nothing interesting to do besides getting lost and dying. Driving northeast from Los Angeles, where Route 14 touches the corner of the Mojave, I started to have my desert anxiety daydream in which, suddenly, cars have never existed. We are all on foot, attempting to follow a cardinal direction, squinting at the withered, dusty scrub-brush and asking each other, does this look like the trail? It looks like it goes this way. The surface of the land is homogeneous, except for the incomprehensible violence of the earth's crust where it has rammed and splintered itself into mountains.

    “Mountain weather is notorious for rapidly developing adverse events,” write Douglas R. Powell and Harold E. Klieforth in the Natural History of the White-Inyo Range, Eastern California. The wind is also notorious. It is not exceptionally strong, but it is constant, day and night, summer and winter. Powell and Klieforth say, “a conspicuous lack of calm.” 10,000 feet above the desert, there is still mostly just one kind of plant, sagebrush. The peak where the Methuselah tree and its friends hang out rises next to a basin filled with sagebrush that catches the shadows of clouds in its convexity. Everything here was shaped by long-vanished glaciers; the basin was filled with ice. It commands attention, ominously quiet, the past or future site of a dreadful battle.

    Not very much can live here. There is a herd of bighorn sheep, on a peak to the north with another stand of bristlecones and a weather station. These sheep must always be within sight of “precipitous rocks,” which restricts their mobility. To escape predators, they run up the rocks, towards nothing. Of course, there are squirrels and chipmunks and lizards. Birds of prey fly over, hunting; sage grouse survive on a diet of sagebrush leaves.

    The White Mountains, via Wikimedia

    Scientists became interested in this part of the world because of its extreme climate and geology. The earliest sedimentary deposits in the White-Inyo Range date to the Precambrian period, 700 million years ago. 25 million years ago there were extensive woodlands, but as the Sierra Nevada Range rose to the west, blocking moisture from the ocean, the area became parched and cool. Stands of trees lucky enough to grow in favorable patches of soil survived as relics on the slopes.

    Bristlecones grow particularly well in rocky, dolomitic soil, which holds little in the way of moisture or nutrients; in fact, they attain the greatest age in the most impoverished conditions. The oldest trees are not the tallest, strongest, or healthiest; they look tortured. The difference between life and death is marginal, as dead trees may continue to stand for thousands of years. Dendrochronologistspeople who study tree ringshave used bristlecones to establish more accurate standards for carbon dating, as each ring records the amount of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere during its formation.

    The Ancients made their debut in National Geographic in 1958, after dendrochronologist Edmund Schulman discovered their advanced age, but they were hardly an overnight sensation. The slowness of life in the bristlecone forest paralleled the slowness of travel into and out of the mountains, and the slowness of disseminating scientific findings. By the late 1960s, when environmentalism had expanded beyond its Sierra Club constituency to include people both young and cool, reverence for trees became a thingpushing radical change is easier with an enduring symbol of the constancy of nature on your side. People began to talk about the ugly bristlecones as a national treasure on par with the more-photogenic California redwoods.


    With increased funding from universities, researchers returned to the White Mountains to take samples and elaborate upon Schulman's original carbon-dating chronology. A story has long circulated that, in 1964, a scientist lost the very expensive drill bit of a Swedish increment borer inside a bristlecone in Nevada, and cut down the tree to retrieve the tool. He then found that the tree had almost 4,900 rings, which meant that he had killed the oldest organism on earth. A wave of public outrage followed reports of the tree's felling. The Forest Service maintains that this was a planned sacrifice, approved for its potential contribution to scientific understanding. Incidentally, before this scandal, local naturalists had dubbed the tree “Prometheus.”

    The destroyer of Prometheus was a geology graduate student at the University of North Carolina. Donald R. Currey would claim that he was unable to get satisfactory samples after multiple attempts with the drill, so he asked local Forest Service rangers for permission to fell the tree, and received it. He published one paper about his findings, in which he attempted rather clumsily to link the record-shattering longevity of the tree with his dissertation research on the Little Ice Age, a climactic shift occurring five hundred years ago. Whatever horror or remorse Currey may have felt is absent from the journal Ecology: “To facilitate compilation of a long-term tree-ring chronology ... one of the larger living bristlecone pines was sectioned.”

    Aside from their remoteness, researchers have deliberately avoided labeling or marking the trees believed to be among the oldest.

    Currey hoped that his discovery would establish the importance of the bristlecone forest and ensure its status as a protected area. He would go on to a reasonably distinguished career in his field, but the shadow of Prometheus dogged him. Few laypeople would understand the work he did as a paleogeographer, but everyone can understand the dubious distinction of cutting down the world's oldest tree. Decapitating Prometheus was so strenuous that Fred Solace, an otherwise healthy thirty-two-year-old Forest Service employee, died of a heart attack on the slope on September 20, 1965. Dendrochronologists joke that the wood of Prometheus is cursed, but like all such jokes, it is a socially-acceptable way of airing the very reasonable concern that people will be punished for doing something terrible.

    Courtesy of the author.

    There is an aspect of secrecy about the bristlecones. Aside from their remoteness, researchers have deliberately avoided labeling or marking the trees believed to be among the oldest. This does not mean they aren't studying bristleconesquietly, this past year, a new record-breaker was identified from a core sample taken in the 1950s and left in storage. Only the dendrochronologist who counted the rings knows the its location. Fame, for a tree, means human visitors treading its root system and souvenir-seekers plucking needles, branches, and pinecones. Some people grapple with darker impulses, a kind of deep-time megalomania: the urge to carve, the desire to touch the inner wood that touched the air of 3000 B.C.E.

    Safe in its mountain hideaway, the new oldest tree is unaware of having earned this distinction. It may not feel much different at 5,000 years old than it did at 4,000. Some days, it might feel that no more than 2,000 years could possibly have passed since that particularly bad winter in the Bronze Age. Life, in fact, is getting easier than it's ever been in the White Mountains. A warming climate promises accelerated growth for the trees; tiny bristlecones are sprouting everywhere in the forest. Insects and competing plant species will soon follow, however. Today's seedlings are likely to live faster and die younger.

    The anonymity of the oldest trees deemphasizes the numbers game and the supposed triumph of longevity that the bristlecones represent. This is a difficult place, its stark uneventfulness punctuated by ice and lightning and falling rocks. Growing here is a population of trees that prefer such conditionsnot a few hardy individuals, soldiering on against the elements, but a forest that blankets the peaks. The aural environment of the bristlecone forest is strangely muffled. Human voices vanish instantly into the air, but you can hear the wind blowing up over the foothills from Death Valley as though the contours of the land itself were audible. Trees can't hear the crushing silence of the place, or smell the sagebrush giving off its hazy fragrance in the basin, and they've been doing this for 5,000 years.

    Sources for this article include Michael P. Cohen, A Garden of Bristlecones: Tales of Change in the Great Basin (University of Nevada Press, 1998); and Clarence A. Hall, Jr., ed., Natural History of the White-Inyo Range, Eastern California (University of California Press, 1986).