Although there are indeed cloned trees and ancient forests with shared roots that are 10,000 or even 80,000 years old, the oldest individual living trees are only about 5,000 years old. Of course, that’s still a really long time for something to live, particularly from seedling to sapling and beyond. Now, supposedly, there was a bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) that was cored by Edmund Schulman, and dated by Tom Harlan. However, the core has gone missing. Still, they did claim to have found a tree that is about 5,070 years old. Regardless, the oldest living tree actually on record is around 4,850 years old. As part of this, the eldest tree, which is known as “Methuselah” was taken high up into the White Mountains of what is now Inyo county by a bird who cached a number of different things in that area. That bird’s flock planted the entire Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, only to come back and discover that much of their food had grown into plants by the time they had returned in need of the stockpiled seed. In fact, it’s this uncharted remote wilderness setting that makes for the ideal conditions that lead to bristlecone pines being able to live so long. Plus, Methuselah is highly adapted to the local environment which is one of the driest places on Earth, so the tree retains the same pine needles for a few decades rather than only a few years like other pines would. Methuselah is an extreme minimalist, so every drop of water is thought of as a precious commodity. Simply put, the tree is used to only just having barely enough to get by, and Methuselah is content with that. The tree is even lucky. For instance, during the atomic bomb test, Methuselah was upwind of the blast, so there are just trace amounts of strontium in the tree ring from 1957.
More importantly, most trees eventually get exposed to lethal amounts of fungus or bark beetles and they die off after decades or centuries. However, Methuselah is so healthy that at one point a pine cone was taken from the tree and found to have a 100% germination rate. So, Methuselah may be old but the tree is definitely still filled with vitality and sexual vigor. Methuselah is capable of producing healthy viable offspring at almost 5,000 years old. That’s amazing! The genetic material in that plant is perfectly preserved to this very day. Plus, Methuselah is a high-altitude life-form, living more than 9,500 feet above sea level, which makes the tree virtually inaccessible at that latitude and longitude (37° 23′ 8.42″ N, 118° 10′ 43.91″ W). In this way, the noble botanical elder has kept a living record of the climate in North America for the last few thousand years. Plus, tree rings are much more precise than carbon dating, so a number of the trees in Methuselah’s Grove have been used to get core samples from both standing and fallen pines, thus showing a perfect year-by-year record of the climate going all the way back to the end of the Ice Age. You see, scientists simply line up tree rings until they match perfectly from one specimen to the next, thus fitting every tree they test into an exact timeline. It’s really quite remarkable how well it all lines up. The resulting dendrochronology is a perfect record of the past, in that the “the trees that rewrote history” have provided an unbroken chain of overlapping records which are indisputable. Plus, it’s super easy for people to do, although it’s probably rather annoying for the trees I would imagine. Still, all that the field researchers have to do is line up the patterns on core samples and then count the sections to know exactly when each tree lived and for precisely how long. This also allows people to know just what the weather was like in North America at any point in the Holocene, thus permanently rewriting history.
In this way, it’s possible to reconstruct the life of Methuselah throughout the last forty-eight and a half centuries. The oldest tree in the world germinated in the year 2833 BCE, and then it got off to a very slow start. Actually, everything that Methuselah does is incredibly slow, and that was even true of even just coming alive. The interesting thing about all of this is that the Grove has a specific micro-climate which makes the stark environment a unique ecosystem. This makes life very boring in that part of the world, to say the least, but the tree is really robust, nonetheless. With that being said, just imagine what life has been like for this long-lived plant that exists in a sort of perpetual state of slow-moving meditation, like some kind of nearly immortal floral Tai chi master. What strange wonders Methuselah must have experienced in the last five millennia. Of course, in all likelihood animals couldn’t even begin to relate to the world of plants. I mean we know exactly what it’s like to be an ape, so the life and times of a chimpanzee would be really easy to relate to, but that’s not the case with pine trees. Floral consciousness is presumably much different than faunal consciousness, but plants definitely react and communicate just like any other organism. There is even something that it is like to be bacteria, but this essay is about trees. So, what’s it like to be Methuselah?!?? Well, I like to think of it this way. Methuselah must be able to remember the coldest winter as being that of 1628 BCE. This was the volcanic winter when the sky turned black from the ashes of Santorini when the few cells that did grow in the tree got so cold they burst after freezing solid. A thin black frost ring marks the tragedy that accurately dates what archeologists never could, namely the fall of the Minoan civilization. I bet Methuselah remembers it quite well, not knowing what happened of course, just that it got really cold, there was acid in the air, and it stayed dark even in the daytime for a while. The point is that it would severely traumatize a tree, so unless Methuselah is senile then that old pine tree is aware that it lived through that catastrophic event.
So, to understand what the soul of a tree is like we have to look at their bodies first. These are reliable records of the biosphere that contain invaluable information about Gaia, and this is particularly interesting in the case of bristlecone pines. You see, although Methuselah is alive, most of it is actually dead. When you look at a picture of an old bristlecone pine tree this becomes immediately apparent. This is because the roots and branches die off as time goes on, so the trees get to a point where they can survive on just one single root if need be. It’s kind of like someone never cutting their hair and nails and having to work around all the extra stuff that’s still attached to them. More importantly, these organisms have an extremely slow metabolism. It takes Methuselah a century to become one in thicker. The whole tree is less than three stories tall, but it has been growing for almost five thousand years. Timescales are completely different to Methuselah and the other ancient pine trees in the White Mountains. Life tends to work much different for them than it does for us. Still, eventually, our paths would cross. In fact, the very first person that Methuselah ever met was a Native American who had daringly followed longhorn sheep up towards the sky. Then, around 3,000 years ago, the Paiute people began to climb up from the Great Basin to the Grove every summer, in order to hunt and commune with nature. As such, they gradually got to know Methuselah and the other elder pines. After all, the Paiute were able to appreciate their botanical beauty, plus they were in touch with the immortal soul of the trees through a deep animistic spiritual connection to the Earth. The indigenous tribes used to live in harmony with the ancient forests of North America, but that sacred sensibility has all but died in America. First, the natives started moving to the uplands for a brief time and establishing summer homes during the 6th century, then European immigrants invaded Methuselah’s Grove in the 19th century. Still, even after prospectors came to rape Mother Earth all that Methuselah could do was just stand there and let it happen. They just came in and cut down one tree after another after another and with each new victim, the air was filled with more and more of the silent screams of dying trees in chemical form. Methuselah must have been completely ashamed, absolutely horrified, and utterly helpless, all at the same time. Then again, there is something very strange about the old bristlecone pines specifically. That is to say, everyone that seems to study them up close always tends to die at an early age. This has led me to wonder if those trees might not emit something harmful that is going undetected in autopsies. Then again, maybe, just maybe, Edmund Schulman actually died from “Methuselah’s Curse”.
On top of that, there are many natural connections that Methuselah has with the world as well these suspected supernatural connections. This might go all the way back to the time of the Ancient Egyptians, in fact. That is to say, in the year 2566 BCE, the most important man in the entire world died and then he was laid to rest in the biggest building on the planet. This was an epic moment in human development and Methuselah was alive when it happened, albeit only as a nine-inch sapling. So, once the mighty Pharaoh breathed his last breath, the carbon dioxide in his lungs was cast adrift into the atmosphere and some of those molecules could have crossed the continents and made their way to Methuselah where they would have landed on the tips of the young tree’s needles. Even if just one of those entered in through a pore, then that molecule would have been split asunder by energy that was drawn in from the Sun, and the carbon would have become part of Methuselah while the oxygen would have been expelled as waste. This is all part of the great circle and cycle of life and death that the old tree has long been part of. The only problem is that climate change threatens to destabilize Methuselah’s Grove. So, the oldest and wisest tree in the world now lives in constant fear, sensing the impending global disruption. I doubt that Methuselah knows that other forms of life will gradually encroach upon the serene sanctuary of the Grove, but the tree can still tell that the world is getting hot in a way that it never has before. After having lived through a full third of the Holocene, the Anthropocene could now bring about the end of the age of the ancient trees, including the death of Methuselah. Only time will tell just how much longer the oldest tree in the world really has left to live…