September 2013 – Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, California
We were on our way to meet some of the oldest beings on earth. From the high pass over the White Mountains into California we turned north into the Inyo National Forest and toward the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, a small sanctuary for these extraordinary trees. There lives Methuselah, originally the oldest recorded non-clonal individual on earth at about 5,000 years. (In 2013 an even older tree was discovered). Methuselah and the other most ancient of the ancients are not labeled as such to help keep them safe from souvenir seekers and vandals.
At 10,000 feet, the air was clear and bright, the trees illuminated against the deep blue skies. This was the end of their short growing season.The trunks are so dense and impenetrable, it is if they are wood and stone at once. Some of the dead logs have rested there for a millennium without decay. We walked on the trail that bypassed several trees over 4,000 years old. The younger Bristlecones look like normal conifers. But as they age over eons they become gnarled, carved and molded, their barren branches turning into claws and hooks reaching out into space. They looked like quirky characters with an interesting past. Some of the trees looked dead and probably were, but many were still alive sporting small green shoots among the naked branches.
The bristlecones have turned some scientific theories on their heads. For example, it was thought that for organisms to be long-lived, they needed ideal conditions. The Bristlecones instead chose the opposite route to longevity. They flourish in a place so remote and harsh that few other life forms can exist there. This means there is little competition for the meager resources.
I am sure they have a story to tell. Having been trained in shamanic views, I do believe their story can be “heard”. But it can only be received in the unique Bristlecone language.
Scientifically, the core samples carry many stories. Using the 5,000 year history recorded in their growth rings, more precise dating of global events has been possible. But I wondered what more subtle teachings they had to offer. Admittedly, the Bristlecones hadn’t traveled much but still they must have witnessed a lot, standing in one place for five millennia.
As I walked the silent trails, the idea of creating the “Bristlecone Club” popped into my mind. This would be a loosely-knit organization devoted to seeing aging as opportunity for spiritual growth. It seemed if there’s one thing the Bristlecones knew, it was how to age. In the Visitor Center were T-shirts that listed the lessons one could glean from a Bristlecone Pine. I borrow this idea and created my own list. I also eventually wrote up a mission statement for the Bristlecone Club. It reads:
As a Bristlecone Club member you are dedicated to getting older with curiosity, wonder, humor and radical acceptance of what may come. You understand that old age is life’s best opportunity to be released from over- identification with body, personality and ideas about self and other. We – The Bristlecones – allow our experiences of aging to be the catalysts for spiritual awakening – for going beyond all ephemeral appearances and into the mysterious groundless ground of being.
The Bristlecone Pine is the symbol and inspiration for our journey. The Bristlecone’s wisdom includes:
• Sink your roots into the earth, lift your arms to the sky and breathe
• You are always growing even if it seems imperceptible
• Live free of competition with others
• Appreciate the unique natural beauty that comes with aging; don’t try to look like a young sprout
• It’s OK to be a little gnarly, rough around the edges, twisted, and bristly
• Live with an expansive view and perspective
• Remain grounded
• Give others lots of space
• Sometimes the most adverse conditions can support growth, life and longevity
Do you want to join?
If there is nothing else impressive about California (and of course there many things), it is being home to the tallest (coastal redwoods), largest (sequoias) and oldest trees (bristlecone pine) on planet Earth. Returning to commune with the Bristlecone Pines is high on my post-Big-Trip travel agenda. The campground nearby in the national forest is also a gathering spot for amateur astronomers because of the clarity and darkness of the vast night sky.