California Mountains – Gnarly Patriarchs

(6th in the “California Mountains” diary of our July 2011 vacation)

If the Bristlecone Pines were humans, I’m pretty sure they would be ascetic saints like Father Seraphim of Sarov or Mary of Egypt, people who lived in the wilderness and had “meat to eat that we know not of.”

Stanleya pinnata; Desert Plume

It was to visit these inspiring creatures that Mr. Glad and I drove up into the White Mountains that rise up east of the Sierra Nevada on the other side of the Owens Valley. The climbing part was a repeat of the previous day’s experience of a quick uphill, and this time it took just 24 miles for us to traverse zones of desert and sagebrush steppe, and come to a land where alpine wildflowers live stunted lives.

Mormon Tea

On the way up through the forbiddingly dry and rugged desert region, waving yellow plumes were the first vegetation to get my attention. Now I know where Dr. Seuss got the images for some of his crazy drawings.

Purple Sage; Salvia dorri

Another drought-tolerant plant we ran across is called Mormon Tea, though it has other common names that aren’t as folksy. It’s a member of the Ephedra family of plants, perhaps milder — and safer? — than the Chinese herb. I didn’t collect any.

The uglier plants passed from view as we entered the steppe zone, and we began to get our eye-fill of gorgeous purple sage, the very flower referred to in the five movie versions of Zane Grey’s novel Riders of the Purple Sage; I haven’t seen the the movies or read the book, but just now learned that there is a Mormon element to that story. This area is geographically part of the Great Basin Desert that covers much of the state of Nevada, and of which Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert is a part, so the Mormon connection to the natural history makes sense.

Bristlecone Pines grow in other areas of the Great Basin, too, and maybe on less steep roads. The ones in California aren’t on the way to anywhere, but they are well worth the worry of hearing your car’s engine groan a bit on the sharp inclines.

The longevity of these trees is the primary fact one learns right off. Except for cloning plants, the Bristlecones are the oldest living plants. The current oldest one is known to be 4,788 years old, and as many as 19 of them are over 4,000 years old.

Not only are they of great age, but they keep their vitality. While other trees show changes in their DNA or produce fewer cones, the Bristlecones are just as healthy and fruitful at 4,000 years as they were at 1,000.

They have ways of dealing with the severe climate, and with seasons that are harder than usual. How to determine what is a particularly hard year in their habitat seems to me difficult, seeing how they always have to do with very little water, and with freezing temperatures much of the year, and soil that is poor. Some of the oldest trees grow in “soil” that is a form of limestone called dolomite, shallow and infertile white rock. The sun is relentless in summer, and the winds are often brutal.

Clearly their youth is renewed not by superfoods and a friendly environment but by a meager diet and suffering — and yes, by their genetic predisposition to “behaviors” that conserve nutrients and strength. For example, instead of dropping needles and replacing them every year or two, they hold their needles for up to 45 years, and it requires less energy to renew the old ones than to grow completely new ones.

If they suffer unusually severe drought or stress, they put some limbs into dormancy so that they can keep producing the maximum number of cones. If we compare them to humans, they are fertile even longer than the biblical patriarchs, or our mother in the faith, Sarah.

The white rock actually reflects some of the sun so that more moisture is retained in the soil, and the trees tend to live relatively far apart from each other in their forests, so they don’t have to compete for light and food. In this way they are the opposite of redwood trees, which need the moisture that collects between trees in the grove if they are going to be their healthiest.

These trees make me think of Bible verses about youth being renewed, but also the ones about hoary heads and the dignity of age. The old and weather-worn patriarchs have a beauty of a sort we don’t see in young upstarts or in overfed and coddled 20-somethings. Even in death the wood is so dense that it remains for centuries and doesn’t decay, much as some saints’ bodies remain incorrupt.

I so love the Bristlecones! I can’t figure out all that they are telling me, but I know it’s something about God and the Christian life. Maybe if I grow really old I will understand more.

The main grove is at 10,000 ft. elevation. After walking the loop trail there we decided to get in the car again and crunch over gravel up another 1,000 feet in a cloud of dust to the Patriarch Grove. It’s only twelve miles, but takes at least 45 minutes. The next installment of this series will tell what I saw there.

7 thoughts on “California Mountains – Gnarly Patriarchs

  1. I love the gnarly trees – what interesting textures! The pine cones are beautiful too. But the barrenness and treelessness of the landscape makes the heart of this Appalachian woman quake a bit!!


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