Bristlecone pines, the oldest living beings on earth, dwell in the high country, closer to heaven than most of us, in a land of little rain. Last week I made a pilgrimage to California’s White Mountains to see them. It was a sunny July day, and the mountains looked like desert from a distance, great slopes of savannah rising up from the Owens Valley. For me, accustomed to hiking beneath a feathery green canopy of coastal redwoods with ferns and forget-me-nots at my feet, the spare, swept-clean beauty of the landscape looked naked in its openness. It was almost ninety degrees in the valley when we turned east off Highway 395 and the car began its ascent. We noted the elevation markers: six thousand feet, seven thousand, eight. The car turned onto an even narrower road, twisting higher into the mountains until we reached the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest at 9800 feet.
Although I had seen photos, my first impression of a bristlecone pine in person was … well, compact. With little to sustain life in this harsh place, they grow exceedingly slowly; it may take a century to add an inch to their girth. Bristlecones typically grow no more than fifty feet tall, with stubby branches and short needles, and lack the symmetry of most conifers. Yet they are lovely.
Trees measure time by the seasons, and their rings count each cycle. On this mountain, bristlecone pines know sun, a little snow, and the precious short time to grow, but for eons they dwelt apart from the doings of man. Now they have been discovered, and visitors come because we want to be in the presence of antiquity, to enter this other slipstream of time for a moment. Yet somehow I can only make sense of it by comparing it to the time I know. The saplings on this mountain are older than the United States; I touched trees that took root a millennium before Buddha found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, before Jesus told the parable of the mustard seed. Our trail took us to the Methuselah Grove, where the oldest tree in the forest stands. It is 4700 hundred years old and unidentified for its protection. As I wandered here, I looked at each tree, wondering, are you the one?
Perhaps most beautiful among the bristlecone pines are the snags. The density of the wood makes it almost impervious to decay, so the trees may stand for thousands of years after they die, all whorls and corkscrews with striations of color from golden to black. Walking in their midst is like touring a sculpture garden or stepping into a convent chapel, where the unguarded face of a nun at prayer reveals the purity of her soul.
Bristlecone pines evolved to survive in a dry land in the alkaline soil of dolomite – in other words, to live with scarcity. They spread their roots a long way out instead of down because that’s where the water is, and they are satisfied with the infinitesimal growth they can eke out in a short growing season from what little the earth offers them besides sun and wind. This, I finally realized, was what drew me so far out of my way to see these trees. They are role models for dwelling in the kingdom of enough.
What do they have to teach us? Small is beautiful. Let your roots find their way to what will nurture you. If you meet adversity with skillful perseverance, it can strengthen the core of your being. Be patient – with yourself and with the earth.