The oldest living tree tells all

"In 1964, a geologist in the Nevada wilderness discovered the oldest living thing on earth, after he killed it." A terrific opening sentence to Hunter Oatman-Stanford's story in Collector's Weekly about bristlecone pine trees, which can live for thousands of years.

By the time of Currey’s survey, trees were typically dated using core samples taken with a hollow threaded bore screwed into a tree’s trunk. No larger than a soda straw, these cores then received surface preparations in a lab to make them easier to read under a microscope. While taking core samples from the Prometheus tree, which Currey labeled WPN-114, his boring bit snapped in the bristlecone’s dense wood. After requesting assistance from the Forest Service, a team was sent to fell the tree using chainsaws. Only days later, when Currey individually counted each of the tree’s rings, did he realize the gravity of his act.
(Image: Inyo Bristlecone Signature Tree, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from usfsregion5's photostream)


      1. I was just about to link to this article. “I needed a fire to see my meth better, so I burned down the 5th oldest tree in the world. And captured the fire on my phone.” 

        Yeah. That, I think, qualifies her for the title of Huge MF’ing Asshole.

    1. If you think it labels his person, rather than his action, that’s on you. He did something that a true asshole would also do. If he learned from it doesn’t mean nothing was damaged irreparably.

      1.  If one is trying to label an action, then perhaps it is better to use phrases such as, “what a shitty thing to do” or “what an idiotic act” or even, if you want to label him, and not his action, “what an idiot”. Calling him an asshole seems to totally misread who he is. If reading the comment in question as directed at his person is on me, I’ll take that. I am proud to be capable of parsing grammar.

        1. I am proud of being able to understand that “Christ what an asshole” is a cultural norm in this setting, often celebrated for it’s clumsy use in a variety of settings to mean what you are telling me, nearly dictating for me, what I should be saying to be clear to you.

          I was speaking to the group. Welcome.

          1. My point was to clearly differentiate between action and essential character. When Krakauer first wrote about Chris McCandless in Outside magazine he was surprised by the vitriol that was used to condemn McCandless. He talks about that response as a major motivator for writing Into The Wild. His point, and the one I was and am trying to make as well, is that it is the nature of youth and amateurism to make mistakes that can, depending on the outcome, look heroic and amazing or just amazingly stupid. Krakauer talks about an arguably much stupider solo climb he made as a young mountaineer that earned him enormous admiration in the climbing community. He carefully dissects all the ways in which that adventure could have gone wrong, and knows that he would have been regarded as an idiot for the undertaking if he had died. But he lived. And was lionized. The snide comment I made about parsing grammar may have been uncalled for, but I deeply believe in the importance of making mistakes. It seems to me that this belief is central to the maker ethos. We learn by doing. We learn by making mistakes. It is Currey’s shitty luck that his youthful, amateurish mistake is one for the record books.

          2. It is Currey’s shitty luck that his youthful, amateurish mistake is one for the record books.

            Seems like the tree paid for his bad luck.

          3. No kidding. I was speaking about only action, thanks for getting that.

            I’ve worked hands on with endangered species and accidentally killed them (within federal permit accidental take limits, no crime), however I wasn’t feeling badly about it because someone called them an endangered species. 

            I was feeling badly because I must have been in a rush,

            It didn’t happen to me. It happened to that fish. I did that.

            Thanks for the lecture.

      2.  Don’t leave out the part where he called in for authorization before cutting it down. That act wasn’t his alone, it belongs as well to whoever gave him the go-ahead.

        1. Agreed. That is an important point. He called someone remote from the situation to give legal clearance to clean up a mistake as quickly and easily as possible for ALL PEOPLE INVOLVED. Hope he learned from that mistake too. What could the tree have done differently is the only question left, I guess.

  1. That Radiolab episode is fantastic (Radiolab/fantastic is redundant). Currey was deeply upset about what had happened and it plagued him for the rest of his career.

  2. So now there’s no more bristlecone pine tree oppression, the trees are all kept equal by hatchet, axe, or saw.

  3. He can be forgiven for his mistake, the loggers and assholes that destroyed whole forests and groves of giant ancient trees that were a thousand(s) or so years old and robbed mankind of a treasure old can’t be.  I guess I’m glad they keep the locations of The Methuselah Tree, Hyperion and some other notable trees secret because you know some idiot would be compelled to hurt them in some way…

    1. That’s almost exactly what happened with the giant sequoias  and prompted the creation of sequoia national park to save them.. the park was made the same year the service was created.

      Even so, thousands of sequoias were chopped down. 

      1.  Yeah I believe the number of old growth coastal trees that are gone is like 96% It’s like filling in most of The Grand Canyon or something.  A crime against humanity IMHO.

        1. But scientists make that claim, then they learn or don’t learn that hubris in the face of nature is a mistake.

          If they do, THAT is science.

    1.  IIRC from Radiolab, he broke several all the bits he had with him and his field time to do the research was running out.

      1. Though, let’s face it: that should have been a clue that he was dealing with a much tougher, older tree than he thought.

    1. How drunk do you have to be to hit the only tree within a 400km radius?!
      And it sounds like that was actually the second time the tree was hit by an automobile!

      1. It seems pretty natural that you would unconsciously head for the only visible marker in your current universe.

  4. hey, i’ve been to that tree! it’s in Great Basin Nat’l Park. i can’t even wrap my brain around how old those trees are, and what they’ve survived through so far in their life. it’s amazing. [EDIT]: oh wait, no, that’s not the same tree. the shape and view looks similar. my awe still stands.

  5. Every time this topic comes back up I feel bad for Currey – people act like he was some kind of devil, or jerk, or evil guy. He had no way of knowing those trees were that old when he started his survey, they aren’t that big. When he started his survey he was a young scientist working his butt off and rushing, but when he realized how old the tree was that they cut down, it ruined his career and to a large extent, his entire life.

    It was a mistake, but cut the guy some slack – he wan’t a trophy hunter, he was trying to better understand the trees in order to better protect them. He fucked up on the first one, but now that we know how old those Bristlecones can be, we haven’t made that mistake again. Before that people regularly cut them down just for the heck of it – if no one had studied their ages we probably wouldn’t have ANY left.

  6. A geologist  doing dendrochronology sounds like a stonemason doing carpentry. 
    Broke off his bits.   Pff 

    Independent of this tree being the oldest or the hundredth oldest – his need to know how long it had lived was more important than the entire life of the tree. 
    Dr. Mengele too considered himself a research scientist. 

    1. Were the tree not the oldest or hundred oldest, most people would not even expect the need to know to justify destroying it. Average trees are killed for more lamentable reasons all the time, and their killers are rarely questioned let alone compared to Nazis.

      Let’s be clear what sets Currey apart: of those who have felled most of the ancient trees, he’s one who bothered to figure out that he had done so.

  7. It is ironic how he got the tree cut down to recover a sample for a tool meant to study the tree without cutting it down.

    1. I got the impression he called in assistance, not to recover the bit, but to date the tree via a less respectful method – ie – cutting it down to get his core samples?

  8. It may have been the oldest single tree, but clonal plant colonies like some aspens are believed to be tens of thousands of years old.

    1. The linked article claims up to 80,000 years old, but they point out that no single part of a clonal plant colony will usually live past a few hundred years.

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