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The Past and Future of the Earth’s Oldest Trees

by Ahmed Kabil on January 14th, 02020

Alex Ross has written a moving tribute to Long Now’s unofficial mascot, the bristlecone pine, in The New Yorker.

What is most astonishing about Pinus longaeva is not the age of any single organism but the collective oldness and otherness of its entire community. No two super-elderly trees look alike, to the point where they have acquired the characteristics of individuals. Trees are prone to anthropomorphism; we project our dreams and our anxieties onto them. Bristlecones have been called elders, sentinels, sages. The possibility that climate change will cause their extinction has inspired a spate of alarmed news stories, although tree scientists tend to discount the idea that the bristlecones are in immediate danger. They have survived any number of catastrophes in the past; they may survive humanity.

The piece mentions a study from a few years back about the bristlecone being potentially threatened by climate change. At the time, we interviewed Scotty Strachan, an environmental scientist doing research on bristlecones on Long Now’s Nevada property, who took issue with aspects of the study and subsequent coverage. The interview is a useful companion to The New Yorker piece.

The piece also mentions Long Now as being part of the “bristlecone cult”:

The bristlecone cult is varied and intense. Artists tease ghostlike figures from their writhing shapes. Creationists have tried to reconcile the bristlecones with a putative cosmological starting date of 4004 B.C. (Methuselah fits their chronology, but the older remnants have to be discarded.) The Long Now Foundation, a futuristic organization based in San Francisco, bought land in the area of Mount Washington, Nevada, in large part because it contained bristlecone pines. Jeff Bezos, a member, is funding the construction of a clock, in a mountain in Texas, that will tick for ten thousand years. Long Now hopes to erect a similar clock on Mt. Washington.

As Long Now cofounder Stewart Brand noted when sharing the piece on Twitter: “The only privately-owned grove of bristlecone pines in the world belongs to The Long Now Foundation in Nevada, surrounded by a National Park, studied by scientists. They are living 10,000-years Clocks.”

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