Saturday, August 25, 2012

Evotour, part ten. Among the Ancients

I went to Sequoia Park to feel small; I went to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Reserve to feel young. These bristlecone pine trees (Pinus longeava) are the champions of a type of survival in which organisms live in hostile environments, are just barely alive, grow slowly, but stay alive for a long time. At least, they are the multicellular champions; there are apparently some bacteria that live miles down into the crust of the Earth and metabolize atoms and inorganic molecules and divide once a century. But you will never see them. But you can walk right up to a bristlecone pine that was 2000 years old when Jesus was born, and 1000 years old when Moses fled into the wilderness.

Sequoia trees (see earlier essay) grow quickly when they are young. Bristlecone pines, however, grow slowly from the very start. The park ranger at the reserve showed me a 10-cm-tall eight-year-old bristlecone seedling.

Of course, not all of the bristlecones are over 4000 years old. They represent a whole range of ages, though mostly measured in centuries or millennia. The park personnel do not identify which trees are the oldest, because they do not want humans taking home little souvenirs of the ancient world.

The trees are barely, but very much, alive. Find me a piece of intact 4000-year-old wood that is not inside of a bristlecone pine tree. Of course, their dry, often cold environment helps to preserve them; it is not a place fungi would prosper. But through the ancient trunks there are still xylem rays—with living cells and cell membranes and active transport—that are alive and preserve the wood.

There is a price to pay for rapid metabolism, the kind us mammals have. Our intelligence consumes a lot of food and oxygen, as does our movement and warm blood. That price is a short life. But none of us would trade places with the bristlecones. Disregarding for the moment the Tolkeinian vision of Ents, trees (especially the slowest growing ones) have no awareness or memory of their environments; no wisdom. The idea of a long-lived human (a Methuselah, for example) is a biological fantasy. But as humans we do have some advantages. We live far longer than do other mammals with similar metabolism, and not just because of recent medical advances. We start to fall apart after age 30, which was when most prehistoric people died, but amazingly enough our minds do not fall apart right away. Many of us actually grow more wise and intelligent as we get older, until senescence at last gets us.

I came neither to envy nor to gloat over the bristlecones. I came to humbly experience the possibility of an almost completely different kind of life than my own.

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