Bygone Bristlecone As far as everyone is aware, pine trees are the oldest on Earth, but they appear to be nearly lifeless. The twisted branches of wood that cling to the high mountains of western North America resemble extinct trees, their color and texture matched to the broken dolomite rock surrounding their roots. Three kinds of bristlecones, so named because of the prickles on the female cones, are found growing at elevations of 5,600–11,000 feet in the dry highlands between Utah and New Mexico. Bristlecones have very few rivals and are incredibly well adapted to their harsh environment, which features long, cold winters, little rainfall, and strong winds. Their timber is thick, resinous, and impervious to fungi and insects that eat wood. To provide protection from the wind and quick access to surface water, the roots are widely dispersed and shallow.

Ancient Bristlecone Pines
Wax coating prevents moisture loss from the needles, which can be left on the tree for up to 40 years. Contrary to popular belief, the bristlecones’ primary means of surviving into extremely old age is by approaching death. Much of the wood on an already old tree dies back as it gets closer to venerability, frequently leaving only a thin layer of living tissue linking the roots to a few twigs. In essence, it has gotten stale and preserved, minimizing both its growth and requirements to nearly nothing. Bristlecone aging is caused exclusively by climatic stressors rather than metabolic ones.

The heartwood is so solid and dry that rock dust from gales and ice erodes it like stone, rather than causing it to rot. Pinus longaeva is the species that can live the longest; in 1957, Edmund Schulman found a specimen in the White Mountains of Inyo County, California, from which he was able to determine its exact age: 4,846 years. Through the use of a microscope, he had counted the annual rings by piercing an intact core from the heartwood. Methuselah was given to the tree right away because it was the world’s oldest precisely dated tree at the time.

A few years later, a University of Carolina graduate student studying geography discovered an even older tree close by. In the course of researching how climatic clues and even year-to-year weather patterns are maintained in tree rings (warm, wet summers, for example), Donald Rusk Currey routinely cored a tree that was designated as WPB-114 on his schedule. He was unaware that it was one of the most well-known bristlecones, having been given the name Prometheus by neighborhood tree enthusiasts in the early 1950s. Regretfully, Currey’s specialized drill became lodged in the trunk. He was unable to carry out his research without it.

So he just chopped the tree down, acting like a bold lumberjack from the frontier. According to legend, he counted the yearly rings while sitting outside in the sun after bringing a piece of the trunk back to his lodging. Since his part wasn’t from the tree’s base, he believed the tree might be older than the 4,844 recorded. He thought it could be more than five thousand years. Regardless of its precise age, Prometheus overtook Methuselah as the world’s oldest tree at the time of its summary execution. (In this not entirely informative league table, it and the living Methuselah were defeated in 2013 by the finding of a bristlecone from the same region that had 5,065 yearly rings.)
 University of Carolina graduate student studying geography discovered an even older tree close

None of the ancient bristlecones that are now much more securely preserved are expected to die from dendrological drilling. However, their future appears questionable. Their alpine strongholds’ average temperature is rising due to climate change. There are now fewer extended frosts, which wiped out carnivorous insects. Blister rust, a newly discovered fungal disease from Asia, is attacking bristlecone saplings and adding itself to the list of invasive parasites that appear to have a thirst for trees. P. longaeva does not face significant threats because it spawns effectively and has dispersed populations.

However, Champion Trees, as they are called in the USA, draw human champions who are more concerned with preserving the veterans’ exact genetic makeup and length of life than they are with the survival of the species. This has the air of arboreal eugenics combined with a sentimental feeling of lineage and the conviction that the best is yet to come. The nineteenth-century belief that the historically immaculate may hold the key to the future is now reflected in the philosophy of veteran tree protection in the United States.

David Milarch, a Michigan nurseryman, started a mission in the 1990s to clone Champion Trees, including the historic bristlecones. Strangely, he had been inspired by visions that were nearly exact replicas of Allen Meredith’s prior to starting his study on old yews. Milarch experienced an out-of-body experience during acute liver failure, and she continued to have early morning visits from “light beings” for months following. They informed him that the large trees were withering and that things would only get worse. They also gave him a mission.

His goal ultimately became to clone the large trees and put them all throughout the United States. He felt that they were a special biological inheritance that humanity needed to preserve. Milarch’s own logic was surprisingly sensible. In an interview, he declared, “These are the supertrees, and they have withstood the test of time.” The biggest and oldest trees in the country were let to fall over and have their DNA go until we began cloning them. Is that a sound scientific theory? Would you permit the final dinosaur egg to vanish or would you pick it up to preserve it for study if you spotted it? Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, Milarch’s scientific work is also lacking. Age and size amply demonstrate a history of withstanding the “tests of time.”

However, they are unable to forecast the capacity to withstand future testing, which can be very different. Climate abnormalities and new alien illnesses are proliferating. It’s also possible that the Champions’ survival was due to a fortunate mix of historical experience and location; a clone transferred to a different environment would not have the same luck. Genes also don’t completely “disappear” when a single tree dies. They are passed on through its relatives and the progeny that it may have been producing for thousands of years, and which may contain genes that are momentarily receding in addition to those that contribute to longevity.