We have a few family birthdays approaching. Our family traditions regarding birthday celebrations are fairly simple. First, we try to ensure that all family members are there to celebrate. Second, each child gets to select the dinner meal. Finally, we always serve homemade French chocolate cake and vanilla icing. While several children have passed through culturally important milestones, e.g. the 16th, 18th, and 21st birthdays, the celebrations (at least at home) have been quiet and fun--but never secretive.
That, however, is not the case with the National Forest Service. As reported in The New York Times, this year a tree in the Inyo National Forest located high in the eastern Sierra Nevada of California will celebrate its 4,847th birthday. The tree, known as Methuselah, is the world’s oldest living tree. The Forest Service is so concerned that tourists, well-wishers, and the curious will damage the tree that they neither list the exact location nor publish a photograph of the tree. All that is known about the tree is that it is in Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of Inyo National Forest surrounded by other extremely old trees.
The Forest Service is understandably cautious because the previously oldest living tree was accidently cut down in 1964. Evidently, a student studying the effects of climate change was taking samples of bristlecone pine trees to evaluate their rings. The drill bit became caught in a tree so with the help of foresters, he cut the tree down to retrieve the bit. Only later were they all horrified to learn that the felled tree, named Prometheus, was more than 4,900 years old.
While it is possible that other trees in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest are older than Methuselah, trying to identify the oldest trees is challenging. Bristlecone pines grow very slowly-about 1/100 of an inch a year. The older trees tend to have smooth bark and thick branches. The trunks are not cylindrical but rather are curved and twisted by the wind. To accurately date the tree, several core samples from different parts of the tree need to be taken and the ring structures compared. However, visiting the park simply looking for the oldest tree seems a bit silly.
We celebrate our human birthdays with family and reflect on the passage of time and anticipate the future. Visiting the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest should not be dissimilar. The trees there were taking root before the pyramids had been built. Let us ensure that they are still there thousands of years from now.