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Oldest Living Tree Tells All, by Michael P. Cohen

by Michael P. Cohen

A Skeleton Plot

During the summers of 1963 and 1964, Donald R. Currey, a graduate student in geography at the University of North Carolina, investigated east central Nevada’s Snake Range, on the flank of Wheeler Peak. He was one of many people seeking to develop chronologies of climatic change during the “Little Ice Age,” which at the time was defined in very general terms as a 400-year period when global temperatures dropped slightly, reaching a minimum in the early 1600s. He was looking for old bristlecones close to or on a glacial moraine which might register climatic conditions, and he found them. Bristlecone pines are the oldest living trees on Earth. And Currey has become famous for cutting down the oldest individual tree ever found. This is the story of what happened.

A grove of old bristlecones has grown for many millennia at 10,700 feet of elevation below the glacial cirque on the northeast side of Wheeler Peak, precisely at timberline. They are visible upon entering the cirque from below, bright weathered flanks of ice-burnished wood gleaming from the talus slope along the crest of a massive but gently sloping lateral moraine. The trees seem embedded in angular blocks of quartzite.

There, about fourteen miles from the Utah-Nevada border, Currey found trees to suit his purpose. The apparent age of the trees suggested that they had lived through the entire era he was studying. He chose one. According to one account, he had broken a borer—maybe on a rock embedded in the tree—and had no prospect for obtaining a new one that summer. Other accounts indicate that he did not have a long enough tool for such a massive tree. Some, including Ferguson, have said that Currey didn’t know how to sample such an old tree.

Without a complete chronology, he could not complete his project. He decided to cut down his one representative old tree, to study its rings. Donald Cox, the Forest Service District Ranger, approved the task and offered assistance. As Curry’s article in Ecology indicated, the tree he labeled WPN-114 grew near the edge of a stand of old trees on relatively stable ground whose surface was, as a result of avalanche-transported debris, about two feet above the tree’s original base. This one was chosen, as “one of the larger living bristlecone pines.” It was “sectioned.”

Men cut down and cut up—during the summer the United States Congress debated and passed the Wilderness Act of 1964—what turned out to be the oldest known living Great Basin bristlecone pine, found not in the White Mountains, but hundreds of miles to the east, in what is now but was not then, Great Basin National Park. That tree, which Currey estimated “began growing about 4,900 years ago,” has been dated by others at perhaps more than 5,100 years of age.

Because of the controversy that followed, it is best to begin with Currey’s explanation. He wrote to the assistant regional forester John Mattoon, nearly two years later, of “several factors bearing on the decision to section the tree, rather than to rely solely on increment-borer cores.” His summary consisted of five numbered points: (1) The massive form of the tree rendered coring “problematical;” (2) A complete cross section would be the “best means of adequately tabulating incomplete growth layers;” (3) A complete cross section would allow him to observe average widths of each growth layer; (4) “As complete a record as possible, from as old a living specimen as was readily available, was considered to be important as a framework around which to build a long tree-ring chronology;” (5) He believed in 1966 that “There was no compelling reason in 1964, nor is there any now, to suppose that this particular tree is the oldest ‘in the world,’ or in the Snake Range, or on Wheeler Peak.”

image, Bristlecone pine. Original graphic courtesy Great Basin National Park.Curry described his specimen as having “a dead crown 17 ft high, a living shoot 11 ft high, and a 252-inch circumference 18 inches above the ground.” The trunk was a massive slab. Bark grew “along a single 19-inch wide, north facing strip. Lateral die-back had left 92% of the circumference devoid of bark.” He noted that wind-driven ice had so deeply eroded the tree that the pith was missing below a point 76 inches above the ground, or 100 inches above the original base.

He described the “sectioning” of WPN-114 in this way: “A horizontal slab from the interval 18-30 inches above the ground and a smaller piece including the pith 76 inches above the ground were cut from the tree, and a smoothly finished 2-piece transverse section was prepared. Within the radius sector present in the section, the growth layers, or rings, have a rather uncomplicated concentric arrangement.” Because written in the passive voice, Currey’s article, like his letter to the assistant regional forester, creates distance by erasing the actors. In the description of WPN-114, the tree appears as if it were not an actual growing being. In the description of the sectioning, the acts of men are narrated as if no men act. What was not asked or spoken became, as a result, the very set of issues in this story.

Currey’s article in Ecology is also confusing because it does not focus on the main topic of his investigation, which was post-glacial history. He discussed the tree’s significance as “rendering datable a sequence of Little Ice Age events,” but did not do so, and instead focused on the tree’s age. The story Currey wrote seems to reveal and yet hide what this research project would most be remembered for. WPN-114 undercut a thesis developed by Schulman and Ferguson, who decided in 1956 that the oldest trees would be found only in the western edge of the Great Basin because the greatest adversity would be found there, in the rain shadow of the Sierra.

Indulging in the passive voice, which is a convention of scientific literature, Currey’s article never fully discloses explicitly its central paradoxes. Local conditions and not generalized geography, multiple conditions and not simply precipitation, would determine the existence of long-lived trees. But the only known living evidence which could substantiate this thesis was destroyed. To date, nobody has found another tree of comparable age in the central or eastern Great Basin, though as a result of WPN-114, the U.S. Forest Service funded a substantial survey of the region.

Getting the Story Straight

Such stories are not entirely about individuals, but also of institutions and cultures. Currey had a National Science Foundation grant for two summer seasons. He was a geographer, not researching bristlecones per se, but using them for close registering of glacial events particularly of the 15th to 19th centuries. He was, as a graduate student at a major university, an initiate into academic culture. When, as some stories claim, he broke his boring tool, he appealed to the custodial agency responsible for the use of these forests. The Forest Service became an actor in his story. It provided expertise with a chainsaw, a more powerful but cruder tool than the two-man crosscut saw Schulman’s team used. The story became political.

In fact, this short tale of an old tree dispatched—which is now an old story—has many versions. I cross-date five predominant chronologies, joined at their source like five needles bound in a fascicle, but diverging toward their ends: (1) Curry recounted a passive narrative for a scientific journal, of the tree as WPN-114, numbered and measured specimen; (2) Darwin Lambert, with other advocates of a Great Basin National Park, knew this tree by the name of Prometheus, and he wrote of it for Audubon as the “oldest inhabitant of the Earth,” martyred for its species; (3) Keith Trexler, the chief naturalist at Lehman Caves National Monument, just down the hill, witnessed the event, which he considered unnecessary, and his story dramatizes a conflict between federal agencies; (4) Galen Rowell’s version of the story for The Sierra Club Bulletin indicts the collusion of scientists and the Forest Service; (5) Charles Hitch, President Emeritus of the University of California, attempted to respond to Rowell’s attacks by recounting a story of justifiable error and defending the free inquiry of scientists. These five stories, bound together at a single event, diverge from their common source and fall into pieces which have to be put together, like the sections of WPN-114 Currey wished to study.

And there are pieces one does not know how to use. In 1996 Ronald Lanner told another story, almost as a footnote to the history of the tree. Fred Solace, a 32-year-old Forest Service employee, died of a heart attack on September 20, 1965, when a second five-man crew was sent a year later to cut another section from the tree and transport it down the trail on a deer cart.

image, Bristlecone pine. Original photo courtesy Great Basin National Park.That Currey sectioned his oldest sample because he could not measure its age with a borer is secondary to the story he has told, but not to the stories told by others. The sectioning of WPN-114 did not, in any immediate sense, damage its scientific use for Currey or others. Indeed, the act had a precedent. Several very old trees were harvested for science by Schulman and his associates at the end of the 1957 season, for detailed study of the trees’ life histories. Schulman wrote about one in National Geographic, saying, “we hardened our hearts,” and cut a specimen similar to but somewhat younger than the Methuselah Tree. In fact, he cut three specimens. But memory is not always accurate. For instance, in 1970 Schulman’s colleague Frits W. Went remembered that he had gone to the White Mountains twice with Schulman, and wrote to Lambert, “in 1956, I believe, we again went together and at that time cut down the 4,600 year old tree.” Went also believed he later saw a section of the old tree at the School of Forestry in Stockholm. Went was incorrect on both counts.

It was a major project to haul a slab from an old tree out of the forest. Schulman recalled five hours of backbreaking labor removing one from the Methuselah Walk. The finished section of WPN-114, as Currey indicated, was transported in pieces and then fitted together from sections cut at separate heights, like pieces from a three-dimensional puzzle. Provenance of some of these sections is clouded. According to Ronald Lanner’s 1996 narrative, one set of pieces of Currey’s tree was resawed at the East Ely shop of the Northern Nevada Railway Company and used to construct three polished specimens. These polished sections were distributed to public and private institutions. Currey took one back to Chapel Hill for further study, the Forest Service kept one in Ely, and one ended up in a display case at the Hotel Nevada in Ely. One small piece is now at the Visitor Center at Great Basin National Park. A sample including a complete chronology of Currey’s tree is stored near Schulman’s sections at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, where its rings were recounted by Don Graybill at 4,862. Currey’s tree, like Schulman’s slabs, is available for continued study transferred to display cases, visitor centers, and laboratories. There is something about these sections and their fragments that suggests the obvious and the hidden, the tree turned inside out.

A Public Response

Both Currey and Schulman had discovered a singular oldest individual, one of them almost by accident. Neither sought the oldest, but only the chronological and climatic record it contained. As I have been told, Schulman’s oldest tree was not recognized as such by him and it has no name. By the time of Currey’s research, as Ferguson wrote to Darwin Lambert in 1966, finding an older tree seemed less important in academic circles than establishing a longer chronology, using bristlecone samples from dead trees for calibrating radiocarbon dates, or correlating tree-rings with climatic events. When queried in 1966, Ferguson said that wood on the ground was even more valuable to science than the living trees, and that “from a technical viewpoint, there was absolutely no need to cut the Wheeler Peak Tree.” According to Keith Trexler, Valmore LaMarche, Jr. of the Tree-Ring Lab was able to take a series of cores from the remains of Prometheus and also thought it was unnecessary to have cut the 4,900 year old tree.

The oldest old tree was less important for its scientific value than for its other uses. The controversy over Currey’s tree focused on the following questions: Who owns such trees? How can their value be assessed? Were old trees being purloined, appropriated wrongfully, when they were sectioned by scientists? Was the Forest Service complicit in some breach of trust?

These questions fueled a controversy orchestrated, to a great extent, by Darwin Lambert. Lambert grew up in the Great Basin, on a small ranch. He was reporter and editor for the Ely Daily Times from 1955 to 1961, manager of the White Pine chamber of commerce, a Nevada assemblyman, and a member of the National Parks and Conservation Association’s governing board from 1958 to 1983. By 1959 he had written serious and detailed proposals for making the Wheeler Peak area a national park.

“Fewer than fifty people saw Earth’s oldest known living tree alive,” he wrote in “Martyr for a Species,” published by Audubon in 1968 and widely reprinted. Lambert first approached this grove of old bristlecones in 1956. He saw, “stooped as under a burden, with roots like claws grasping the ground—a magnificent monster standing alone.” Because the tree filled his sight, he grasped it. “Four spans of my outstretched arms, six feet to the reach, were needed to encircle the misshapen trunk. Not far away were more colossi, some still larger and more grotesque.” Lambert developed these trees as characters “proclaiming victory over death.” They became part of a tangled story including the writer Weldon Heald; David Brower of the Sierra Club, who “nicknamed the species 'bottlebrush tree' for those long dense clusters which distinguish its foliage”; Fred Seaton, Secretary of the Interior; and the biologist Adolph Murie, who had recommended national park status for the region including Currey’s tree in 1958.

It is probable that Lambert found a precedent for his personification of trees in the writing of Murie. Unlike Currey, Murie was willing to speak of trees in the active voice. “Their weird hobgoblin shapes with arms reaching and turning at all angles, like the illustrations in the Wizard of Oz,” he wrote in a 1959 report, “give one a feeling of being in a strange world. Each tree is a character to meet.” Following Murie’s lead, park advocates, a coalition of chamber officials, conservationists, Nevada politicians, and some people in Utah had been naming the trees. “Buddha,” “Socrates,” “Cliff-hanger,” “Storm King,” and one on nearby Mt. Washington called “the Money Tree” because a local photographer “sold so many portraits of it.” Lambert introduced friends, neighbors, and visiting dignitaries to these denizens of the state’s second highest peak.

image, Bristlecone pine. Original photo courtesy Great Basin National Park.The tree Currey had labeled WPN-114, Lambert and his friends named “Prometheus,” probably in 1958 but not later than 1961, after the demigod worshiped by artisans, who stole and gave fire and the arts to humans, who was chained to a mountain crest by Zeus, where an eagle fed each day on his liver until he was freed by Hercules. In 1968 the name seemed distinctly ironic. Lambert wrote: “Earth’s oldest living thing was casually killed (yes murdered!) in the name of science.”

Lambert’s narrative cast Currey as a mere student, expressed incredulity at the forest supervisor’s approval of Currey’s plan to chainsaw the tree. “The oldest living thing had been killed in the process of discovery!” he wrote. One member of the local park association saw how the story could be exploited if told properly, saying, “Prometheus might become widely enough known as a martyr to save the other ancients.” Lambert made Prometheus the central character of his narrative, the martyr whose “cross sections are to be found at the University of North Carolina, in several Forest Service offices, and on public display in a Nevada hotel,” while his “stump remains unprotected and unsung on the rocky moraine of Wheeler Peak.”

Lambert has retold the story several times, most prominently in Timberline Ancients (1972) and in his Great Basin Drama (1991), a history of Great Basin National Park. As he retold it, he added accurate and concrete detail and cast the narrative in more personal terms. Each of his tellings is rooted in his initial response, when he read Currey’s article in Ecology and realized that Prometheus had been cut down: “We felt that we were walking home from a loved patriarch’s funeral. The wounds open every time—to this day—when memories of that ancient tree surface.”

A slightly less passionate narrative is provided by Keith A. Trexler, park naturalist at Lehman Caves National Monument during the period, who documented the events leading up to and including the cutting of Prometheus. Not only did Trexler write his own narrative of the events, he also produced a set of photographs of the tree. In one, Donald Currey appears climbing the massive slab, which leans at about a 45 degree angle from vertical. In another photo, Trexler labeled the living portion of the tree, its pith, and the locations where it was cut, indicating these lines also with regard to the probable age of the segments. In another, Currey surveys the broken slabs of the tree arrayed on the forest floor.

Trexler’s version of the story was written as reports, notes, and letters, and sometimes was told in interviews with Darwin Lambert. His first report, including photographs and one short summary written after the cutting, was appended to Lehman Cave Superintendent Bob Jacobsen’s monthly report of September 1964. Later, Trexler indicated that researchers from Arizona found the tree itself to be in some sense an anomaly, as much as 2,000 years older than any of the other trees in the grove. This made it different from Schulman’s Methuselah Tree, which was found in a grove containing many trees more than 4,000 years old.

As a result, Trexler reported, investigators considered it a “living freak,” “decrepit,” a singular phenomenon, and its discovery not likely to be followed by similar discoveries. To call the tree a “freak” suggests a great deal. A freak is something deviant. Using such a term concentrates and embodies the idea of a curiosity and speaks in turn of the beholders. Freaks are unusual, exotic, unexpected. People visit scenes of wonder and curiosity, are drawn to freaks of nature and collect curios—samples which are novel, rare, or bizarre. To be intensely curious is to be more than inquisitive, it is to be nosy, prying, to experience unquenchable desire.

Trexler remembered that Currey “proposed cutting down a tree, which he felt was one of the oldest on the mountain,” not because of a broken tool, but because he “had extreme difficulty getting sufficient cores and felt he needed a full section of the tree.”

Trexler’s anger focused on what he believed was a lack of discretion combined with inexperience or perhaps incompetence, intensified by desire. Others, like Donald Wilcox, a district ranger in the region during the 1970s—and perhaps also Ferguson—believed that “Currey knew what he had.” Humboldt National Forest district ranger Donald E. Cox granted permission to cut the tree on August 3, 1964. But he did not do so on his own authority. He consulted Slim Hansen, his supervisor, who worked at Elko, 250 miles away. Hansen told him to look at the tree. Cox apparently found the tree “very common.” “No one,” he is reported to have said, “would have walked more than a hundred yards to see it.” So it could be used for science. Hansen casually responded, “Cut ’er down.”

Robert Jacobsen, superintendent of Lehman Caves, attempted to intervene across bureaucratic boundaries because, as he wrote in his monthly report, cutting the tree “would be a loss to the world.” One Forest Service sawyer refused to cut the tree on August 6, 1964. The next day, Cox and several Forest Service crew members took turns at the saw.

There was a scandal and a cover-up. Later, when questioned by Senator Bible of Nevada, the Forest Service chief said that there would be no more cutting of old bristlecones, but he also said, “We have a lot that are the same age or older.” This is what Currey believed.

Stories of premeditation and refusal, of shared guilt and casual assent, of callousness and caring, of curiosity and lack of concern, of value and lack of evaluation, of arrogance and ignorance, led to pointed arguments about the Forest Service’s ability to combine custodial responsibilities with a scientific and utilitarian mandate. As anyone might guess, a lot of men—each with his own political allegiance—got to calling each other bad names as a result of killing that tree, and the language escalated to terms indicating blame and bitterness, rape and murder. George Kell, a director of the Nevada Outdoor Recreation Association, said that the Forest Service allowed Prometheus to be cut “apparently because it does not wish to surrender jurisdiction of the land in question to a rival government agency.” This, then, was the extreme rhetoric of the politics of timberline.

image, Bristlecone pine. Original photo courtesy Great Basin National Park.An Argument Conducted near San Francisco

So the stories of WPN-114, or Prometheus, diverged, depending on the allegiances of the tellers and the audiences to which they appealed. For instance, Galen Rowell of Albany, California, wrote his version of the tale for the September 1974 Sierra Club Bulletin, introducing it with a well known quip from Governor Reagan of California, who “may have gotten away in some circles with saying, ‘If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all,’ but could never say that about a bristlecone pine.”

A decade after the act, Rowell spoke of Currey in the present tense, saying, “In his scientific report,” Currey “offers no remorse or compassion,” but the tree, “which he fondly calls WPN-114” is reduced to a set of statistics. Further, wrote Rowell, “Subsequent literature has been purposely obscure,” which he found understandable with the Forest Service, “which would wish to conceal this fact.” Rowell accounted for “half truths in the writings of scientists” by the fact that “most all dendrochronologists have cut down certain trees in their time.”

Rowell’s distance from the story allowed him a certain creative latitude, and yet the central fact—the central fact of all these narratives—is the tree itself, “sliced by a chainsaw to see how old it was.” For Rowell, “a stump of the oldest living thing, cut by man, the tool user, is one of the most repugnant sights I’ve seen.” He threw a blanket of condemnation over scientists, Forest Service rangers, any humans who failed to understand that “the wood belonged in the mountains.” He broadcast his condemnations so widely that all the issues became confused.

Dendrochronology begins with craft but uses a statistical methodology. Calibration of radiocarbon dates requires more than pencil-thin cores. The question of ownership or utilization of wood cannot be resolved by saying it belongs to the mountains.

Rowell was answered by Charles Hitch, a student of A. E. Douglass who later became a professor of economics at Berkeley and was President Emeritus of the University of California in 1981. Hitch felt called upon to answer the versions of the story promulgated by wilderness advocates. He did so in an address to the Kosmos Club in Berkeley, and a version of the talk was published in American Scientist in 1982.

Hitch refers to Donald Currey as a “young research scientist” who planned to use a Swedish increment borer. “Actually,” Hitch wrote, “cutting down a tree to examine the rings in the stump seemed unlikely to be necessary.” Then “the borer struck— irretrievably. This was a tragedy, for the borers were available only in Sweden,” and waiting for replacement was impossible, or “summer would be over and his expedition a failure.”

Now, when Currey selected a suitable bristlecone pine for establishing his climatic record of the era under investigation, Hitch reports, “The selection was rather arbitrary,” since other similar trees might have served. But—and here is a crux of the story—the selection was made before Currey stuck his borer, because he had already obtained permission to cut a tree if he wished. A ranger, “having verified his permit and anxious to help the cause of science, offered Currey a saw and offered to help him take down the tree.” “Actually,” Hitch concludes, “in my opinion, both Currey and the ranger acted reasonably and responsibly. They just had incredibly bad luck.”

Two repeated terms in Hitch’s narrative, “actually” and “incredibly,” suggest the extent to which acts or credible intentions of people might be believed or not, depending on the way the story is told. What does it mean to cut down a tree? It depends on which tree was actually cut, on the intentions, credible or not, and on the results of the act. For what? we ask, why? how? and according to whom? Why might such an act, carried out in the practice of “normal science,” be important? Who were the actors? Were they truly active, or passive participants? Can one take all these pieces of the story, the fragments or segments, and put them together like the pieces of a crossword puzzle? Can they be put together into one history, or do they constitute a puzzle whose total picture, both obvious and hidden, has an inside and an outside, like a glove which can be turned inside out and worn upon either hand?

Hitch titled the narrative in which the tale of the Prometheus tree is embedded “Dendrochronology and Serendipity.” The word serendipity is derived from a Persian tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, and comes from the ability possessed by the heroes of the tale to find valuable or agreeable things not sought for. So, Hitch illustrates this plot within a larger narrative of the history of science, wherein “Even Libby died happy” with the fruits of the marriage of radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology, and “A. E. Douglass can turn over in his grave and smile.”

The Scientist and the Public

All this talk of smiling dead scientists because someone cut a single tree. It is a particular feature of old bristlecone forests that they are made of discrete individual trees. And this one became an ethical touchstone. Methods matter to the living. The Swedish increment borer and the chainsaw: most investigators of bristlecones use both. The borer was designed to investigate the growth of cultivated trees in orchards, or, if etymology matters, in gardens. It multiplies human vision and allows the investigator to see inside the tree without injuring it. The chainsaw was designed to harvest wood efficiently. It multiplies power and allows a user to get the lumber out. It is confusing when someone uses one tool when he meant to use the other, but the uses of these tools are linked. In this particular incident, science gave the public the oldest tree and then seemed to take it away. Science gave old trees value and then seemed not to value them sufficiently. The tree as object of study yielded the tree as object of reverence, but one of those engaged in the study seemed not to respect the value science had created for a larger public.

Wes Ferguson recognized the problem immediately. As he wrote Lambert in April 1966, “I have advised the Inyo National Forest in California, where we do our research, that under no conditions should a living bristlecone pine tree be cut for determination, display or radiocarbon analysis.” On the other hand, he also told Lambert that his opinions on the ethics and technical need to cut the WPN-114 tree were “personal opinion privately expressed.” “I do not wish to be quoted in any manner in regard to the tree that was cut.”
Scientists had made bristlecone pines valuable, and scientists had created needs. Ferguson had assisted Schulman in assembling his collection of bristlecone samples in 1956. By the 1960s, when radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology converged, the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research found itself besieged by requests from researchers all over the world for samples of dated bristlecone wood for laboratory purposes.

A team of scientists had established “standardized techniques for specimen preparation and dating control.” These scientists were engaged not only in providing and shipping their “product,” they also had adapted a master tree-ring chronology to standard computer programs, had developed techniques of statistical analysis, and had begun to develop the theory of dendrochronology and its allied fields dendroclimatology, dendroclimatography, dendroecology, dendrohydrology, and dendrogeomorphology.

In 1968 Ferguson wrote an article entitled “Bristlecone Pine: Science and Esthetics.” He reported that after Schulman’s National Geographic article, “visits to bristlecone-pine localities took on the nature of pilgrimages.” By the mid 1960s, Ferguson observed, nearly 20,000 visitors were coming to the Schulman Grove each year, a number that seems small now, but some of them collected “ornamental wood,” even where such activities were restricted. Which meant, wrote Ferguson, “I must compete with the public for my basic research material.” Surely, he thought, the highest use of old wood was not as “personal memento,” nor as decorative wood, not aesthetic, but scientific. He concluded, with characteristic understated, passive voice, “Concern is expressed for the preservation of this ancient wood.”

image, Bristlecone pine. Original photo courtesy The Bishop Village Motel.Rowell too saw the need for concern, writing “Today the oldest living thing by default is the Methuselah Tree in the White Mountains; its exact location is kept a secret for fear that tourists will desecrate it or carry off souvenirs.” Rowell did not know that the oldest tree was anonymous and consequently twice removed from the public, but, like Ferguson, he saw that trees would have to be protected from the attention of those who competed for them.

As Ferguson argued, it is not clear that the tree’s being alive had by 1968 as much value to the dendrochronologist as its being mostly dead, since his study of its already dead wood was directed toward extending what was at that time a 7,100 year chronology. But Ferguson misunderstood or at least simplified the aesthetic impulse by narrowing it to the act of collecting for interior decoration. He understood that the public followed the scientists into the Schulman Grove but did not acknowledge the reciprocal debt of scientists to the readers of National Geographic and the funders of federal programs.

He failed to understand that an overwhelming proportion of artists, even amateur photographic tourists who took snapshots, were interested in confronting these trees in place and responding with their own forms of expression to the forms of the weathered snags. He did not consider the artists who did not presume as much as scientists do about the importance of their activity. Might an artist cut a tree down or collect ancient wood? Some have asked to do so. But artists, interested in the outward form of the trees, have less need, perhaps, to possess them materially. Yet the artist, like the scientist, also abstracts something from the tree and is interested in some law, harmony, or form that can be used in an aesthetic representation.

If the historian steps back from the foci of serious tree research on time lines and climate change, or from the frivolous rights of tourists to collect decorative wood, or from fanciful representations of trees as personages, the qualities of trees themselves remain. The oldest trees still seem important because of what comes together in them.

Scientists found the old trees themselves neither all dead nor all alive, but both, and the record of their growing—the rings—was also the record of their dying. In this sense, even a living tree was both present and absent, because it had a surface and an interior, which in a young tree consisted of the live wood encasing the dead part. But in the old tree, such as the one cut by Currey, less than 8 percent of its surface was alive. A dead surface and a solid but inert substance created most of the body of the tree, sought by scientist and artist alike.

The dead wood, which makes a tree so scenic and historic, is not absent from the life processes of the tree. Some represent the dead wood as protecting the live wood, as necessary to the survival of the tree itself, an adaptation that makes the structure of an old bristlecone seem almost like an inside-out version of the structure of a “normal” or “healthy” pine, whose living cambium protects its largely inert interior.

As it turns out, the longevity of these trees revealed only the beginning of their value. Their value came not only from their age, but from how they aged, what their aging revealed, how their aging was related to the environment in which they lived. As Stephen Trimble puts it in a somewhat metaphorical way, their value comes from what humans imagine these trees to have witnessed. Why they live so long, what aspects of the time and changes they have inhabited; these questions make them interesting to humans because they are questions about humans too.


Michael P. Cohen is a mountaineer, "ecocritic," teacher, and writer whose publications include The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness (University of Wisconsin Press, 1996 reprint), which won the Mark H. Ingraham Prize; The History of the Sierra Club 1892-1970; and A Garden of Bristlecones: Tales of Change in the Great Basin (University of Nevada Press, 1998), from which this essay comes. He has been a Research Fellow of the National Endowment of Humanities, a Danforth Fellow, and Distinguished Faculty Lecturer at Southern Utah University. He has also been awarded a Distinguished Teaching Award by the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters.
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