On the Bristlecones: Ancients Facing Multiple Threats

Ever since I first heard of them in late December of 2019 or else early the next month, I’ve been worried about a brushfire sweeping through Owen’s Valley and climbing the slopes of the White Mountains to the east, across the way from the Sierra Nevada and the Sequoia, up into the ancient Bristlecone grove where the most ancient beings on our planet are (for now) living. This anxiety only grew after I finally went to the grove, compelled by something greater than myself, there encountering a majesty I have not yet found words or lines capable of encompassing.

But it isn’t the fires I ought to worry about, as Sarah Kaplan reported recently in The Washington Post, as much as I ought to be concerned about bark beetles making their way up into that sacred grove, digging into them as a non-preferred alternative to the lower-elevation evergreens they do prefer.

To be clear, I don’t use that notion of sacrality lightly: I am not a religious person, nor am I even particularly ‘spiritual.’ But I know what I felt in that grove was something divine I have not ever felt anywhere else. I felt a sort of radiating eminence from the Sierra Nevada as well, but that was a different feeling: apparently, and logically enough, the divine in a mountain range differs from the divine in an ancient evergreen grove.

The spiraling growth of many of the trees only happens in the high arid spaces they call home; grown elsewhere in more lush conditions, the trees grow like more typical evergreen trees.

Ever since I walked through this incredible grove and felt their awesome presence, I’ve been keeping a close watch on Owen’s Valley, centering my fixed gaze on Big Pine, just outside of which is the access road up into the White Mountains to the Ancient Bristlecone Grove.

In late February this year a fire erupted right there on the valley floor between Bishop and Big Pine.

The ‘Airport Fire,’ ignited Feb. 16, 2022. It was contained by the 24th and thankfully never left the valley floor.
They are terribly clever creatures: new growth climbs upward against an established trunk. You can really see it here: a shaggy bark-covered branch climbs up much older smooth wood, like a snake spread out along the trunk.
Many of the trees on the shorter of the two trails are frequently seen in photos of the species, especially these two, for obvious reasons.
What appears to be two trees is really only one, revealed by a section of trunk from the base of the one on the left going into the one on the right, which is apparently the oldest part of that trunk.

Some of the trees in this grove are almost five thousand years old, nearly three thousand years older than the oldest sequoia. The oldest tree confirmed by core analysis is over 4,500 years old. The scientists who know where it is (a tightly kept secret) call it ‘Methuselah.’ I would like to know its real name, but that’s a post for another day.

Living so long has its disadvantages: namely, soil erosion, as you can see in the previous picture picture and below. That is why if you go to the grove, you’ll see signs telling you to stay on the trail to avoid further erosion.

Because dolomite is favored by few other species, Bristlecones are able to grow at their own pace without being crowded out by faster-growing trees. They chose a niche and dug into it.

Like any other tree, these mountain-top dwellers are subject to lightning strikes and so you’ll see one here and there, burned from the inside out with such force that the trunk exploded.

Any tree dying on our account, each tree killed by capitalism-induced climate change is a debt marked in the ledger of our species. Each old growth tree torn down and then torn apart is a debit in our register. But the loss of these trees, the most ancient beings still alive today, is almost too much to comprehend. There is nothing comparable to them so far as we know. The next oldest trees are a couple thousand years younger. Their acknowledged value is scientific, of course; but there is so much more that a person can learn from them that does not involve stabbing into a living creature.

The discoverer of the loss on Mount Thompson in Death Valley estimates 60-70% losses due to bark beetles, whose numbers have grown exponentially as the temperature has risen, meaning that all those extra beetles are going to be looking for new trees to breed in, leading them to expand their territory, taking out two thirds of the trees they encounter.

Now I have to figure out how to reconcile myself to the loss of these trees on top of everything else. I’ve let myself consider them relatively safe based on a rather naive hope that these isolated groves would stay isolated, but that seems increasingly unlikely.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Make a one-time contribution to what I do

Make a monthly donation to what I do

Make an annual donation to what I do

Anything donated helps fund my creative endeavors!


Or enter a custom amount


Thank you SO much!!

Thank you SO much!!

Thank you SO much!!

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly
%d bloggers like this: