The Oldest Tree on Earth

A few days ago, we got to go to the bristlecone pines groves high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. These gnarled trees are the oldest on earth, with some dated to about 4900 years. Hiking around at 10,000 feet, I remembered a story I’d read a while ago about the oldest tree on earth being cut down after a researcher got a tree corer stuck in the tree. I did some research and talked to the ranger, and discovered that tree was another bristlecone in Great Basin National Park. Because that tree was cut, the oldest living tree on Earth is now here, in the Sierra Nevada, a mere two miles from where we were. Our task was to write something as we pondered the bristlecones, so here’s what I came up with.

The Oldest Tree on Earth

When I was nine, I read a story in Muse about a researcher who cut down the oldest tree on Earth. Trying to age the bristlecone pine, his tree corer had gotten stuck, and the Forest Service gave him permission to kill the tree to retrieve his equipment. When the tree had fallen, its age was finally revealed. Reading the story, I put down my magazine, fighting back tears as I wondered about the thing we choose to value.

Now, as I see these ancient trees for the first time, I realize the story I read tells more than I originally thought. Suppose the corer had gotten stuck in another tree, not quite so old, perhaps a younger sibling. The trunk would have succumbed to the same chainsaw, the thousand dollar piece of equipment saved from its entrails. No one would have seen fit to write an elegy for a tree only 4000 years old, not quite holding the all-important record. The incident would have been written off, forgotten. No one mourns the second-best.

Still, my mind tries to fathom the sequence of events that ranked a mass-produced piece of scientific equipment above one of the oldest trees on Earth, for surely the Forest Service was not ignorant of the age bristlecones live to. Where were the conservationists and concerned citizens offering to donate money to replace the corer? Where was the conscience of the student, the bureaucrat who once loved trees before he was trained to see them as a commodity? How do so many of us, knowing trees are alive, refuse to see them as living? Some loggers have sworn they’ve heard trees scream as they’re pulled from their roots, torn apart and hacked into pieces.

Walking through the bristlecones, I take pictures. Frame after frame, taking and taking with tears in my heart because I have nothing to give. I wonder what these trees have seen over the years. I wonder if any of them screamed when they lost their oldest brother. I want to apologize for hubris and capitalism, but it is not my apology to give, nor theirs to accept. I walk on, my heart heavy, and I hear nothing bul silence from the oldest trees on Earth.

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