The Bristlecone Pine Tree

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 bristle rightimageswere 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.

bristleconeAnother 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 livingbristleconepineimages 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!



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  1. John Hopkins on September 5, 2016 at 5:37 am

    Good morning, Sister Melannie and welcome back! Being a NewEnglander, I fully concur with your assessment of Maine!

    In your blog you write: “I have never met a bristlecone pine in person.” What a lovely sentence! It bespeaks a beautiful awareness of the way we are connected to all living things. We are all in this together! The bristlecone pine! A grizzled, natural prophet silently teaching anyone willing to stop and see and listen. It does the will of God just by being what it is.

  2. Mary Schneider on September 5, 2016 at 10:06 am

    Sr Melannie:

    This is indeed a lovely reflection. In my home state of Nevada, the Bristlecone Pine is a much loved tree. There are many of them in the Great Basin National Park, approximately 60 miles from my hometown. This is located in West Central Nevada near the Utah border. I must admit I learned today (from your writing) that this tree exists elsewhere. Thank you for enlightening me. Mary

  3. Patty Davidson on September 5, 2016 at 10:23 am

    Welcome back. Missed you.

  4. Patty on September 5, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    Thank you for the lovely and thought-provoking article. Welcome back.

  5. Rosemary on September 5, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    Welcome home! Sister Melanie,
    So happy you were able to relax and unwind a little.
    I, too, love trees and have a huge Black Walnut Tree that provides shade and shelter. Like Pocahontas, in the movie spoke to Grandmother Willow,
    I share tears and laughter, prayers and thanksgiving with my Grandmother Tree. She listens with patience and keeps all my secrets ☘
    Today’s song is one of my most favorite….I have been humming it all day.
    Make a great week and thank you for making mine!! Blessings and love❤️

  6. Anita on September 5, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    Enjoyed the comparisons sister! I’m a new Englander too. Just love it!

  7. Nancy Frederico on September 5, 2016 at 10:22 pm

    Hi Sr. Melannie

    Your writings are so reflective and beautiful. I think John sums it up so much better than I ever could.

    May God continue to bless you and your outstanding gift to all of us.

    My prayers always.

    Nancy Frederico

  8. Linda Ann Torer on September 5, 2016 at 10:28 pm

    I missed you Sr. Melanie…but I did enjoy your repeats!!! I am going through a rough time and your words today spoke to my heart…thank you so much…God Bless You.

  9. Loretta on September 6, 2016 at 11:28 am

    Good Monring Sister,
    Welcome back! My brother lives on Drakes Island inWells Maine and I have often gone to Mass at the Franciscan Retreat in Kennebunk. A beautiful spot! So great to check in with you and just feel the joy you share so beautifully in all your reflections. As I write, I am in the waiting room as my husband is in surgery for prostate cancer. You met John, the patient man tolerating all the sisters-in-law during our Florida retreat last January! Prayers appreciated. Thank you again for being with us last January. So many loved you it! In Febraury we are welcoming ValLimar Jansen to be our retreat speaker. You will be hard to follow though! Peace and all Gods blessings to you, L

  10. Annie on September 6, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    Dear Sr. Melannie,
    Loved your reflection! Yes, trees are as individual as people and have much to teach us. Here is a very interesting (15 min.) presentation on how trees communicate with each other:

  11. Sister Mary Eamon Lyng on September 6, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    Welcome back! I am so happy you had a restful two weeks. Time away is great medicine for the mind, body and soul. Enjoy these beautiful Autumn Days.

  12. Tom on September 6, 2016 at 10:50 pm

    Good to have you back “live on line” again. As to your question about having ever met a bristlecone pine, I would answer that I have met many, in the person of every person whose spirituality has given them the freedom to keep changing directions in response to the unexpected events of life.

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