Nestled on the Eastern slopes of the White Mountains in the Inyo National Forest, lives a clan of ancients. The oldest of the impressive sentinels had already been living for thousands of years before the birth of Christ, before the creation of the famed Rosetta Stone. They had already witnessed three quarters of a million sunrises and sunsets when the blocks for Stonehenge were being chiseled. The Great Pyramids at Giza would have to wait yet another 500,000 sunsets and sunrises from that point before would they be conceived . These creatures, the oldest living non-clonal organisms on the planet, are emblems of adaptability and survival.
I’ve had the honor of walking among these wonders thrice in my lifetime, and each time I have been amazed and humbled by them. The steep dolomite slopes on which the Bristlecone Pines reside are rough and textured like the silvery skins of the trees themselves.
The Bristlecones stand alone and apart on these extreme inclinations; they thrive in the alkaline soil not because it is perfect for them, but because they are obstinate and adaptable and opportunistic enough to exist in an environment, which would kill most other plant life. If that is not enough to hint at their stubborn nature, consider the Mohave Desert Basin lurking to the east far below Schulman’s Grove.
To walk among them is akin to walking through the canyons of Zion National Park. I taste my insignificance in these places, my transience. I also sense wonder, and a host of other feelings in this vein. Gratitude to be part of this experience, to be able to witness these creatures and creations, to stand amidst the art and science of time and revel in the absolute miracle of our planet.
The Bristlecone Pines perform their dance over eons. For some species they grow as little as one inch per century. Some 40 year-old seedlings in the White Mountains, where we were October 2016, are less than six inches tall. The harsh environment, the growth rate, and the peculiarities all contribute to a movement in wood (for it really does appear that these trees undulate and dance).
A photographer wandering among the Bristlecones can get lost through the lens. The bark ranges from a silvery, monochromatic austerity to a warm vibrant glow. It curls and folds like fluid ribbons tumbling from a gift.
Serpentine, the gnarled limbs twist, as if to conjure their will and imagination into the world with the spell of their dance.
The other striking thing about these trees is that it looks as if they wear their heartwood on the outside. As if, when they grow they fold outward, baring themselves, showing off the growing living sensitive bits of them. I’m sure this is not the case. I’m sure this is my uninformed and overly romantic interpretation. Whatever the case, they are fluid magic. They are historians. And hypnotists and sages.