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40: wise-guys

Updated: Feb 27

Dear Friend,

How are you doing today? It’s the first day of October, so it’s National Homemade-cookie day. Whether drop or pressed, molded, bar, cut-out, unbaked, sandwich, refrigerator or kitchen-sink… homemade is the key; do you have a favorite recipe for homemade-cookies? If you don’t, I hope that you will ask an ‘older’ person for theirs in exchange for a plate of homemade goodness. 'Old' recipes can be amazing!

What do you think of when you think of ‘Old?’

Are you immediately reminded of the graying muzzle on your neighbor’s horse? Hole-y socks? A plate of leftovers in the back of the fridge? What is Old?

One of my flute students once guessed that I was 85-years-old. (I was actually in my mid-thirties). (I’m not sure I’ll make it to 85, but that’s not important to this story). She had guessed incorrectly by 50 years … not a critical error in that scenario. And she was only seven years old. Her frame of reference was limited.

Scientifically speaking, a sound frame of reference is imperative to accuracy.

My 7-year-old student looked at me, saw that I was tall, and thought, “Leslie is WAY old, so she is probably 85.”

What really helps scientists is a base-line. For instance, age can be roughly determined by how many teeth a person has. My flute student hadn’t yet lost any ‘baby’ teeth and certainly didn’t, yet, have her adult smile. It would have insulted her if I’d said, “Well, YOU look like you are Five!”

Don’t worry, I didn’t.

Anyway, you’ve heard of counting tree-rings to determine the age of a tree? Along with the age of the tree, scientists can determine other important information such as the conditions of the environment as the tree grew, whether the tree had been through fire, an abundance of rain, severe drought, volcanic eruptions, etc.

Frank and I learned a lot on this subject at the Schulman Grove Visitor Center, Ancient Bristlecone Forest, in the White Mountains of California, where there are living trees well over 4000 years of age and growing.

Thanks to these specific trees, a ‘correction curve’ for world-wide Carbon-14 dating was determined. The mountainside is dotted with living and dead trees. And because the environment is just right to preserve the wood, scientists can depend on the rings to be ‘sound.’


I will try to summarize a very lengthy, complicated explanation: Tree rings can be counted without cutting down a tree. The scientist takes a core sample from a tree (living or dead) and studies the rings in that sample. The data is in the number of rings and in the ring pattern. If the rings are wide, there was growth that year, if they are narrow, the tree growth was restricted. This will be the same throughout the forest.

When the ring patterns are lined up to match the same time-frame, a 4,000-year-old tree contains the same ring pattern as a 200-year-old tree, a 1200-year-old tree, a 10,000-year-old stump, etc. There are trees in this forest that span thousands of years. From this data, scientists create a ‘base-line’ to determine the age of other important things like ancient civilizations.

Why do these trees live so long? It has to do with the lack of competition, not that bristlecone pines can’t grow elsewhere, (they can), but they grow in this high-altitude environment because 1) they can adapt while others cannot, 2) without other plants, the pines are able to glean all of the nutrients from the soil.

These trees are good at adapting. In a dry year, the tree won’t try to grow, the needles will become firmer and more densely distributed, more bark will die and in turn, more of the tree will die, so that even just one branch might continue to live. In a rainy year, the tree will send out new shoots, form new cones, and its ‘needles’ will be more ‘supple.’

Great Basin bristlecone pines are the longest living organisms (known) in the world. They grow in Utah, Nevada, and eastern California at 9,800 – 11,000 feet elevation and manage to exist in harsh soil and extreme weather (150 mph winds, below-freezing temps, low moisture and snow pack)… These conditions make it next to impossible for other plants to thrive. One other type of pine tree can handle these extreme conditions, the Limber Pine. It grows among the bristlecone pines and though it isn’t known to be “Ancient,” it is certainly tough and gnarled like a Bristlecone tree. From a distance, it might be difficult to tell the two trees apart.

This White Mountain Buckwheat grows along with bristlecone pines. These little, ground-cover plants are enjoying their springtime in September, and they are plentiful; there was a lot of moisture this year.

But not many other plants can grow in the White Mountains. The soil is too high in calcium and magnesium and too low in phosphorus.

It’s good to keep in mind that these trees are successful because they don’t have competition, not because they can’t grow anywhere else. Because of their longevity, dating back thousands of years, Bristlecone pines are fantastic examples of resilience.

As we hiked through the forest of these old, twisty and gnarled trees, I noticed that there was sap oozing out of the pinecones, and wondered if that meant that the tree was stressed, possibly even sick.

Not so. Bristlecone pine trees have a thick, viscous resin (rather than sap) that helps seal new seed cones after pollination (by wind). The resin helps to keep insects from nibbling on the premature seeds. So, when you see this sticky, dripping, ooze on one of these trees, not only are things going very well, there is also a good chance that pollination has been successful, there will be new seeds for animals and birds to eat, and seedlings will begin to appear wherever the seeds might fall. It takes two years between pollination of a seed cone and release of the seed. So, throughout the forest, the trees are at different stages and when the pollen flies, it lands on the cones that are ready (and apparently, it lands on everything else, too).

Bristlecone Pine trees will allow large portions of their bark to die in order to focus on the newer growth. As soon as the tree begins to grow, part of the tree is already dying. That’s why the tree appears to be partially dead, it is partially dead.

We visited the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest two weeks after the pollen flew. We were too late to experience the fluffy, yellow that covered everything around. A Forestry person told us that the pollen this year had been so thick that cars were blanketed by it and drivers had to use their windshield wipers to see beyond the yellow.

85 years is young for a bristlecone pine, though part of its bark will have started to die and the plant might even appear to have the beginnings of a twist. Every year, the trees have to endure some of the worst possible (living) conditions on earth, yet, they are also the oldest living things on earth. This Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is proof of their success!

Frank has visited this forest for many decades. He has watched the forest slowly change over time, dying and growing simultaneously.

We are so grateful to the people who have helped to keep these trees safe from logging and wildfire. If you have ever visited this forest, you know what it takes to make the trek, you’ve had a taste of what it would be like to live for centuries in this environment. These old trees are like happy, intelligent teachers; they are quiet, gentle, Do-ers. Wise-guys, whom we love!

There is so much more that I could write about these trees and this place... I feel like I've babbled on long enough.

Please contact me  to let me know how you’re doing and, if you’ve had a chance to visit this Ancient Forest, I’d love to know your story!

We appreciate the time and energy it takes for you to check in to Tracks by the Post! Thank you for being here, and thank you for your care!

Have a wonderful week!

Gently Be,

Leslie (and Frank)

PS: My thanks to Frank for sharing his beautiful work – check out his NATURE STORE to see New Pics!

PPS: And tune in… when I turn 85, I’m going to share all of my homemade-everything-recipes - and I hope that you will do the same!




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