White Mountain Series : Part II, The Ancient Trees

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Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains, Inyo County, California

It’s a long hot drive through the Mojave desert and the Owens Valley in summer, in a truck cab, without air conditioning. The anticipation of higher altitude cool air kept us fairly focused on finding that turn off of Highway 395. A few years back I tried to drive up Highway 168 with my brother to the ancient trees, but it was November and the snow increasingly hampered our way the higher we climbed. Eventually we had to stop the car and hike. But even that was a lost cause, as we came with in a mile of the visitor center to the ancient forest and had to abandoned our attempt trying to walk through snow drifts up to our thighs. But now these years later it was summer, and I was going to have the chance to visit these trees that a botany professor had enraptured about, so many years back in college.

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Road to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of California in November

Fairly soon after we started to drive up out of the Owens Valley, we entered the Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands. Just about anyone who has headed toward the American West, into the Rockies and beyond, has experienced these woodlands. It’s those wonderful scraggly and rather sparse conifer forests that cling to the red rock cliffs of northern New Mexico. So sparse botanists and ecologists don’t even call them forests, but woodlands. Junipers stare down into the depths of the Grand Canyon and pinyon pines grow on the slopes of just about every Nevada mountain range. It’s what you pass through if you’ve ever been on the Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, headed toward the Raton Pass. As we drove, the silver grey of the pinyon trees spotted the landscape until they finally dominated. IMG_2151_edited-1

It is amazing to learn of the sustenance indigenous people derived from this environment. Although the Owens Valley Paiute made good use of the valley floor, and it is fairly comfortable even in the winter, it seems the pinyon trees higher up the slopes often provided an abundant crop of pinenuts, that was too good to pass up. Certain years the harvest was plentiful enough that they would build winter camps above 6000 feet (1828 meters), so they could gather and be near the nut caches they accumulated. Archaeologists have found evidence of many pinyon camps in the White Mountains. They were often located near ravines, like the one we were driving up, that were dammed to catch melting snow for water needs. The camps were littered with projectile points, manos, metates, and obsidian knives and scrapers. There were roasting hearths and firepits for roasting the green cones of the pinyon. They would have lived in a wogadoni, mountain houses covered in pine boughs and bark slabs. Although other Great Basin tribes had some tough times during the year, the Owens Valley Paiute seemed to have lived fairly well. They traded the nuts they harvested, along with salt they gathered in the dry lake beds of the valley, with the Monache of the Sierra Mountains to the west. In fact, anthropologists have been revising somewhat the earlier notion that hunter/gatherer groups struggled for existence. It’s more likely they lived through long periods of relative comfort and a kind of affluence.

My friend and I drove to just about 8600 feet (2621 meters) and set up our tents at Grandview Campground. I think it is quite possibly the only campground in the White Mountains. Before the sun set we climbed a ridge and tried to find this grand view. The campground itself was plenty scenic, but it was down in a wide ravine with no actual site affording a grand view. That is, as far as we could tell.

It was turning to late afternoon and I was getting hungry. The Paiute skill of preparing and roasting in hot ash pandora moth caterpillars, harvested from the local jeffrey pine trees, has long been forgotten. So we prepared our trucked in fare, after setting up camp. As we ate, we watched what looked like rain clouds drift overhead.

IMG_2064_edited-2Although the annual precipitation of this area is only around 12 inches a year, thunderstorms in summer do break out in these mountains. My friend deliberated over setting up the rain guard on his tent. He wanted to avoid blocking off the view of the stars through the screen roof, if it was at all possible. He sometimes wrestles with his new tent. The previous time we went camping together he had just bought that tent. We had camped at a rocky site above Death Valley with its own spectacular grand view. He had been wrestling with what seemed an inordinate amount of time trying to pitch the tent. I eventually came over and realized the tent was still on the picnic table and he was apparently trying to pitch the rain guard. At the time I suppressed any urge to laugh. I didn’t want to anger him. You never know the frustration level of a man inadvertently playing twister with a convoluted piece of canvas, that was never meant to be poled and staked. As it was, when I told him, he had a good laugh. He’s become more adept at raising it, but its assembly still requires decisions.

As the dusk turned to night the sky became clear. It seems the heat from the mountains helps to form clouds from the southern tropical air flowing north. And with the diurnal effect of the cooling earth the clouds are dispersed. And all just in time for the glory of the heavens to stage a fantastic planetarium show. My friend had read somewhere that the White Mountains afforded a reliable grand view of the star studded night sky. Maybe that’s where the campground got its name. In fact these are the ideal conditions for stargazing. Not far from the campground is a radio telescope observatory. CARMA, which stands for Combined Array of Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy, is run by a handful of universities producing high-resolution astronomical images. It turns out at this elevation, in the dry air, they can avoid some distortion from atmospheric water vapor. So even the professionals are here, taking advantage of the stellar light.

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CARMA (Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy) in the White Mountains of California [Photo taken from Wikipedia site on the astronomical instrument]

As the ground became invisible in the darkness the sky blazed with star light. You needn’t crook your neck staring straight up. Even in the sky directly above the horizon, constellations were emerging above the crags of the eastern Sierras. To the west a triangle of stars gave the illusion they were flying in formation. Orion was just above the horizon further to the south. Venus burned brightly and I located at least three red tinged stars in my search for the planet Mars. It’s hard to imagine that we’re seeing thousands of years into the past. I laid back on the picnic table to stargaze as my friend wandered into the road for a more open sky. Maybe I dozed off a little. When I opened my eyes again a rather bright object floated through the sky at a fair rate.

After I wondered a bit at what it was, whilst enjoying its beauty, my friend said, “Do you see that?”

“Yea, I think ahh…Isn’t that a satellite?”

“Nah, it’s too big. Satellites mostly follow the track of the Milky Way.”

“It’s flying as fast as a plane but I don’t see any flashing lights.”

“Yeah, I don’t hear any jets.”

We were silent for a little listening for the distant echo of jets.

“What the hell is that?”

As we talked it had already reached it’s zenith and was silently and swiftly headed toward the horizon.

“It’s a UFO to us,” I said.

We wondered a little more as we watched an array of night sky phenomena. Shooting stars streaked the sky and a few satellites followed that Milky Way path. Occasionally lightning flashed in the distance. By the time I hit the sleeping bag Orion was high in the sky. Some kind of nice inversion layer keeps the night air in those mountains warm, the heavy cold air sinking down into the Owens Valley. So I slept fairly comfy and solid that night.

It wasn’t until a couple of days after we got back from that trip that I identified the flying object through a Google search. Just around that time in the early evening the International Space Station orbits over North America. The unblinking light is the reflection of the sun off the solar panels. Apparently it was still bathed in the rays of the sun, while it floated over our dark terrain. It’s only when you take the time to journey to such places that you see these things you never anticipated. This dry, clear atmosphere and the alpine landscape has many wonders to discover.

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Bristlecone Pine still alive with photosynthesizing needles

The next morning we got up early and headed for higher altitude and the first grove of bristlecone pines. These groves are the major attraction that brings most visitors to these mountains. Bristlecone pines are not only some of the oldest individual trees on earth, but their age and tolerance to the harsh climate of this alpine region give them the most other worldly, ancient and tortured beauty of any trees you could encounter. Botanists use the term krummholz, German for twisted wood, to describe the stunted, bent growth of trees that endure alpine and subalpine conditions. There is something truly enchanting to walk amongst trees that display in their countenance more years than the Roman Coliseum, adding growth rings when Socrates was wily ridiculing Athenian politicians and were saplings even before Abraham walked out of Sumeria to find his own god in the Levant.

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Bristlecone pines growing in nutrient poor dolomite soils

The terrain above 10,000 feet (3048 meters) changes as the pinyon pines give way to a subalpine scene of sagebrush broken by patches of sparse pine. The sagebrush and its brethren shadscale, rabbitbrush and Mormon tea grow in the darker sandstone and granitic soils. But the limber and bristlecone pines make do with the nutrient poor, but bright, white, dolomite earth. In fact, they prefer it. The white dolomite doesn’t absorb as much solar energy, and although the difference might be slight, the dolomite regions aren’t as dry, and that makes all the difference to the pine seedlings. And it’s all visible to the naked eye. Because the vegetation is thin, you can see both types of soils and the plant life they support from just about anywhere you stand.

Soon we reached the Schulman grove, the large stand of bristlecone pines first made famous when Edmund Schulman and his colleagues, studying tree ring growth, discovered a tree over 4,600 years old. Even the needles of these trees live a good 45 years. We parked at the grove’s parking lot where there was a trailer standing in as a visitor center. There was no one about so we decided to visit the center after our hike. The trail soon took us around a bend with the dolomite sided canyons reflecting bright under the morning’s sunrays. From a distance, the bristlecone trees looked straight and tall on the other side of the canyon, as they might tend to do in wetter climates, but on our side in amongst the trees themselves, we could see we were walking through a ghostly forest. There were plenty of trees clothed fully in pine needles, but here and there were skeletons of crooked, stunted trees that had sprouted under stars no longer visible to us. IMG_2086As we came along a ridge it was scattered with dead trees in all there agonizingly twisted glory.

It’s the resin that makes the texture of old wood so beautiful. And the resin is the result of fungal infection. IMG_2094_edited-1Resin is like our blood clotting, blocking the potential invaders from getting to the cambium and the sugars of the phloem that feed the roots and the tree’s growth. We stopped to get what I call texture shots. Macro images of caramel colored wood, like petrified pulled and stretched salt water taffy.

My friend and I are often chattering away on trail hikes in the mountains above the town where I live. But here we fell into a silence as we walked through this other worldly landscape. After a good hour and a half on the trail, hiking through a couple of different plant communities, we eventually came upon what is called the Methuselah Grove.

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It was here Dr. Schulman discovered the 4,846 year old bristlecone pine tree, which was subsequently named after the Old Testament character who lived 969 years. That tree is the real Methuselah. Reportedly still alive, the tree is unidentified to save it from vandalism. Because there is, undoubtedly, some Dick out there who wants the world to know in a couple hundred years from now, that he loves Jane. Anyway, the grove is abundant with the ancient, twisted specimens to marvel over. There was no need to know which tree is the tree.

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The varieties of shapes the branches and trunks are contorted into, are beyond the wildest dreams of all the animators Tim Burton could bring together. Here even the dead ones are partially reanimated in this demanding environment. The roots of a live tree will graft onto the roots of a dead tree and claim its soil’s water and nutrients. It is what botanists call ‘hydraulic redistribution’. Dr. Frankenstein would be impressed. Life is long here for these trees, but death does eventually come. But even in death its bones are utilized before they become fertilizer.

As we wound are way out of the grove we stopped for a power bar break against a younger, taller tree. I noticed some peculiar holes in the lower trunk. They were too big to be the result of bark beetle larvae, which bore into the tree to feed on the sugar rich phloem. And they were perfectly round holes, most likely from a dendrochronologist’s borer bit. It reminded me of a story I had heard in a botany class of a premature death, undue to the lifecycle of the ecology. Back in 1964 a graduate student was doing research on an ice age of the last few thousand years in the Snake Range of Nevada, in the vicinity of a mountain top called Wheeler Peak, an area that has now become part of Great Basin National Park. He was drilling into a tree there, using a technique dendrochronologists incorporate to pull out core samples from tree trunks without killing them, to count the rings for scientific data. He twice broke his borer’s bit in the tree. Frustrated, he decided, with the forest service’s permission, to cut down the tree for an easy ring count. The results of the felled tree was the discovery of the oldest tree on record at that time, 4,862 years. Since then, older trees have been discovered, still the unfortunate geographer Donald R. Currey is now mostly famous for killing what came to be known as Prometheus.

After the approximately three hour hike, with plenty of stopping and gawking at the wonders around us, we found ourselves back at the trailer, which was standing in as a visitor center. By now the small space was crowded with people about to go on the hike. We met Francis, a volunteer who told me she had abandoned some ordinary life in populated California. She got a teacher’s license so she could live in Bishop, down in the Owens Valley, and then spend every available gap between obligations of responsibility, exploring the Eastern Sierras and the Inyo ranges to the east. She was now retired, so her obligation to herself was to enjoy the natural beauty of her surroundings. As of now, I’m sure the new visitor center is complete and Francis and her colleagues aren’t crammed in a trailer. Francis suspected arson was the cause of the razing of the previous visitor center and even the identity of the arsonist. It harked to some Timothy Treadwell ‘Grizzly Man’-like dispute you find between government agencies and fiercely independent individuals out on the edges of the wilderness. There was no dispute with us though, as we headed back to the car. We agreed that hike was one of the more fascinating natural history experiences and wilderness areas we had ever encountered. Preserving it and managing a visitor center for the public to experience the region is, to my mind, one of the more important services of government agencies.

Like a Clark’s nutcracker gathering seeds, we cached our memories of this wonderous place, and left it to providence that they would sprout later more inspiration, wonder and a deep fondness for even the most rugged and harshest, but beautiful landscapes of our planet. We had plenty of day left, so we headed toward another ancient grove some fourteen miles down the spine of the White Mountain range, seeking more wisdom of patient fortitude and perseverance from these age-old entities.

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White Mountain Road toward the Patriarch Grove and White Mountain Peak

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