In a remote and inhospitable area of the White mountains in California, there grows a remarkable tree: the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva). These trees rarely exceed 30 feet in height. Their girth isn’t that impressive either. But what is astounding is their age: Some of them are 5,000 years old!
This means these trees were alive when the pyramids were being constructed in the sands of ancient Egypt. They were already several thousand years old when Jesus walked the dusty roads of Palestine. And they were over 4,000 years old when Columbus embarked from Spain in three small ships.
Two questions arise: How do these trees manage to live so long? And do these trees offer any wisdom for us short-lived human beings?
(First, a note: I got most of my information for this reflection from an article by Anthony DePalma in the summer 2016 issue of the Notre Dame Magazine.)
Several factors account for the bristlecone pines’ incredible longevity. The first factor is their inhospitable environment. Ordinarily we think living things need a favorable environment to survive. But the bristlecone pine shows us otherwise. Its environment is characterized by frequent drought, high winds, severe and prolonged cold, and soil that is nothing more than chunks of rocks. In fact, some people call their environment a “moonscape.” The upside of such a place is this: there are hardly any other living things competing for the meager resources available. Also the lack of ground brush means that fires aren’t a problem for there’s nothing to feed a fire.
Another secret to these trees’ longevity lies in the composition of their wood. The cells in their growing cambium layer are packed so tightly that a hundred of their rings can be found in a single inch. Their resin too makes them extremely resistant to rot and insects. And here’s another trick these trees have up their bark: when the tree exhausts the nutrients in the rocky soil beneath their roots, they shut off the parts of the tree supplied by those failed roots. That part of the tree dies while the rest of the tree continues to live.
What can these bristlecone pines teach us humans? First, they tell us to change our attitude toward adversity. DePalma writes: “The trees show us how to live noble and honorable lives, not only respecting our environment, but accepting it for what it is and not making extraordinary demands upon it.”
DePalma also writes: “They show us how, when one part of our lives come to an end, we need to send nutrients in another direction where the strength we gather can overcome the loss.” These trees tell us not to send our nutrients to something that is dead in our life—like a relationship that is over. I admire individuals who are able to turn their nutrients in another direction in their lives, whether they’ve had to face declining health or the loss of a loved one, a particular job, a home, or a way of living that us gone.
And finally, the bristlecone pines can give us a renewed appreciation for the gift of life. These trees, like us, are living things. This means they respire, require nutrients, bear offspring, and survive in a way inanimate things (like the Grand Canyon or a particular mountain) do not. These trees, writes DePalma, are “a constant reminder of the fleeting nature of our own time on earth, how very, very short is our time here, and how important it must be to revel in and take advantage of every moment.”
I have never met a bristlecone pine in person. But I have hugged and caressed a lot of trees in my lifetime. When I lovingly touch a tree, I can almost feel its life surging beneath its bark. I sometimes whisper to the tree: “You’re alive! So am I! Isn’t being alive wonderful?!”
As we reflect on these ancient trees it seems appropriate to close with an ancient song: Psalm 118. This song of thanksgiving was written around 500 BC. This version is by the St. Louis Jesuits. As we pray the words of this psalm let us thank God for the precious gift of life, for our connectedness with all living things, and for the beauty of planet earth.
What do you think of bristlecone pines? Have you ever met one in person?
What experiences give you a greater appreciation for the gift of life?
PS: I spent almost two weeks in the beautiful state of Maine. The first week, I led a retreat at the Marie Joseph Spiritual Center in Biddeford—right on the Atlantic shores. I thank Sister Sue for all she did to make the retreat run so smoothly. And I thank the 44 wonderful retreatants, both lay and religious, who inspired me with their prayerfulness and goodness. The second week I spent in nearby Kennebunk with a good friend, Mary Fran. We stayed at the Franciscan Guest House, a reasonably priced non-profit hotel. We enjoyed a two-hour sail on the Schooner The Eleanor, walked the beaches, strolled through the Rachel Carson Wildlife Preserve, saw the George and Barbara Bush compound, and ate some great lobster and crab. My heart is filled with gratitude for my time in Maine!