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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The Ancients

KNAU commentator Scott Thybony captures his shadow cast on, Methuselah, the oldest living bristlecone pine tree on record.
Scott Thybony
KNAU commentator Scott Thybony captures his shadow cast on, Methuselah, the oldest living bristlecone pine tree on record.

The years have accumulated like the growth rings of a tree, reminding me that some things shouldn’t be put off. A pilgrimage to Methuselah, the oldest living tree, starts making sense. On the spur of the moment, my friend Tony Williams and I begin sorting gear for a trip to the White Mountains of California. We will try to find a bristlecone pine so ancient it contains more than 4,800 rings, each one recording a year of life.

The ability to date past events by a tree’s annual growth rings began in northern Arizona. In 1894 Percival Lowell sent a young astronomer to find a location for his observatory. A.E. Douglass chose a site on the outskirts of Flagstaff and collaborated with Lowell on an intensive study of Mars. They eventually had a falling out over the existence of intelligent life on the planet. Lowell fired him without explanation in 1901.

Stunned by the turn of events, Douglass spent several months traveling through northern Arizona. Descending toward the desert he noticed how rainfall controlled tree growth, an observation which raised a critical question. “If this happens in terms of location,” he wrote, “why shouldn’t something happen to the tree in terms of time?” The answer would lead to a new field of study, dendrochronology.

The astronomer collected his first specimen of ponderosa pine at a Flagstaff lumberyard. He found the pattern of narrow and wide rings so consistent he could date when a tree had been cut. Finding older and older trees with overlapping patterns provided a chronology going far back in time. This led to a major breakthrough in the dating of prehistoric sites throughout the Southwest.

Eventually Douglass set up the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona and hired Edmund Schulman. Searching for the oldest trees, Schulman began exploring the ancient bristlecones pines found in the White Mountains. What he found surprised him. A dozen trees more than forty centuries old were still alive. “These oldest pines,” he wrote, “are now but living ruins.” To survive, most of the tree dies leaving dead wood to support a ribbon of living tree connecting the roots to tufts of green branches. Schulman called it, “the life line.”

Tony and I follow a winding road into the mountains of California to the Schulman Grove at 10,000-feet in elevation. A recent storm has left patches of snow above a closed visitor center. We take packs and start walking along a trail toward the oldest living tree on record. To protect it, the forest service has kept its exact location a secret.

Trunks the yellow of antique ivory surround us as we walk. Wind has etched in relief the grain of wood with the branches twisting skyward and the roots twisting into the ground. These beautiful old trees, each one unique, cover the mountainsides despite arctic cold and grinding winds. Bristlecones thrive on adversity.

As the two of us continue through the ancient stand the focus on a single tree lessens. I realize we have already arrived where we want to be. The forest as a whole has a greater impact than any single tree. Walking through this forest of light on the ragged edge of the living world is enough.

Eventually we come to Methuselah. Without specific coordinates, I could have walked past it without a second glance. The bristlecone resembles an old man sitting unnoticed in the corner, left to his own thoughts. Standing next to it I notice how my thin shadow represents only a sliver in the life of a bristlecone. We pay our respects and move deeper into the forest.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.