Learning from the Ancients

In his latest book, Elderflora, Jared Farmer chronicles a history of exploration and study, destruction and preservation that will keep humans and age-old trees intertwined for the long haul.

The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains in eastern California feels like another planet. It’s almost exactly that—a different epoch, frozen yet changing in and throughout time, simultaneously dying and surviving as glaciers melt, animals go extinct, and new stories are passed down or reinvented explaining how it all came to be. Trees usually have a hard time growing at high altitudes. The cold, dry air makes it difficult for many species to adapt. Yet, here I am, hiking 10,000 feet above sea level among gnarled living beings that are over 4,000 years old.

The harsh landscape of the first half of my hike along the 4.5-mile interpretive loop trail in Schulman Grove (known as the Methuselah Trail) stunned me. The Great Basin bristlecone pines are not the prettiest or biggest trees I’ve seen in California, but they are by far the oldest and most interesting: Their contorted limbs, seemingly half-dead yet thriving, are like Tim Burton creations. I’m alone but it feels like ghosts are watching me. I don’t need to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. The other more-real observation I’ve been making for some time and trying to ignore is that I desperately need to pee. With the visitor center more than two miles away, my options are limited. Under most outdoor circumstances, I have no problem relieving myself in the woods, but posted signs here make me hesitate: “Please protect the Ancients: Stay on Trail.” Squatting on the trail would be inconsiderate to other visitors. Finding some privacy behind a tree, however, seems downright irreverent to these millennial-aged trees and the very history of the world.

Was I being ridiculous or are trees sacred creatures worthy of such dilemmas and discomforts? In the book Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees, Jared Farmer details this often-complex relationship between people and trees, especially very old trees. Throughout time, humans have revered certain trees, turning their leaves into medicine and their trunks into shrines. But we also knock woody plants down—for lumber or the paving of a road—and sometimes with no remorse. Elderflora is a history book. As such, it is packed with facts and dates and storied narratives of the characters who exploited trees or tried to protect or study them for the sake of profit, religion, or science. But Farmer does not write exclusively as a historian; rather, he reminds the reader that he, too, is human. The author offers a fresh perspective on growing old and the lessons that trees bestow as gifts to a species navigating a burning world plagued by climate change.

By sharing stories of human relationships with alien organisms—for ultraterrestrials experience time and place (time in place, place in time) in ways so earthly they seem otherworldly—I hope to say something hopeful, or at least anti-hopeless, about linear time, including the future. Instead of the sacred linearity of Christian time or the secular linearity of geological time, both defined by catastrophe, I want to emphasize the potential sacrality of elongating the now, postponing the end, and abiding with uncertainty. I think ahead to the next new world, after fossil fuel capitalism, when gardens must grow in our ruins.

Ancient bristlecone pine tree; California, USA—© Galyna Andrushko

Humans need trees. Aside from providing oxygen and storing carbon, old trees can also serve as role models to less stationary beings. Farmer contends that time is of the essence for both species but that humans would make better use of it by slowing down and thinking, or acting, more like our forest-dwelling counterparts. Trees can lead by example in their ability to lengthen time through periods of uncertainty, stress, and transition.

“Perdurables (Farmer’s term for thousand-year growers) are more than service providers. They are ethical gift givers. They invite us to be fully human—fully sapient—by engaging our deepest faculties: to venerate, to analyze, and to meditate. They expand our moral and temporal imaginations. This end-all argument, at once pragmatic and philosophical, is a matter of time.

… to become wise stewards of the planet, we must learn to think in the fullness of tree time.”

What is tree time, and how can mere humans comprehend its fullness in our comparatively shorter lifespans? Elderflora commits itself to answering this question with historical accounts of tree worship and exploitation—two acts intrinsically bound to the idea that trees exist to provide, in abundance, the essentials for human life. The homes of kings and emperors were built by the mighty cedars of Lebanon; olive trees from the Levant provided oil and light in biblical times; the ginkgo’s beauty was revered in China, Korea, and Japan; and in Africa people relied on the baobab for shelter, storage, and shade. Old things can be found everywhere, Farmer reminds us, if only people take time to look.

Poetic beauty and its symbolism is also a crucial, human necessity. Human devotion to the pipal (the sacred fig), for example, helped spread Eastern philosophy westward. Having observed their natural process of growth, early philosophers concluded that fig trees possessed the power to create through their ability to destroy. After all, pipal seedlings begin as epiphytes, hanging on in the canopy of their host tree and rooting downward, splitting their host’s trunk as they mature.

Veneration doesn’t always ensure safety and care for a tree. Humans are known to make fatal mistakes, sometimes out of a desire for profit or simply because they can. Along the Pacific Rim, in ancient forests dominated by kauris in New Zealand, alerce in Chile, and hinoke and sugi trees in Japan and Taiwan, “…giant conifers, isolated for hundreds of millennia, became hitched together in the long nineteenth century through colonialism and fossil fuel capitalism,” Farmer writes. “A pan-Pacific outlook reveals parallel forces liquidating the planet’s superlative forests and, ultimately, convergent forces shoring up compensatory reserves.” In California, European settlers harvested redwoods on a massive scale and colonized the Indigenous communities of Yaroks, Wiyot, and Tolowa as they went. “Of the coast redwood forest that existed in 1848, only about 5 percent exists now—all of it protected.”

Giant sequoias in California were also commercialized even after laws were enacted to protect the species and Sequoia National Park had been established. Felled sequoias were turned into tree salons and shipped nationwide. Cross sections of sequoia stumps were also transformed into timelines of human civilization—a narrative based on the whims and beliefs of those who owned the stump and who tended to disregard the painful fact that these trees were taken from stolen land.

This fascination with big, old trees was at times grotesque. But it also led to scientific quests to understand time more deeply, including how the environment had changed throughout the ages. Due to the sudden influx of Sequoia slabs with imprinted timelines appearing in museums, dendrochronology—the science of dating using annual growth rings in tree trunks—progressed, as did human understanding of previous climates. Millennial sequoias had survived hundreds of fires and drought years in their lifetimes, and their tree rings marked these events. Gradually, the trees provided a more reliable and less biased timeline than we’d ever had before:

Sequoia chronologies of drought and fire aren’t equivalent to national or civilizational timelines. The “tree story” contains no plot or meta-narrative, just a record of change over time. Drought rings and fire scars can by keyed to the Christian calendar, or any other calendrical system, or none at all. The tree-ring archive defamiliarizes the past—a benefit to long-term thinking, but a detriment to temporal feeling. A cambial data set doesn’t feel like a piece of Americana like a sequoia slab. Indeed, no artifact can embody a sequoia chronology, which is a graphical representation of statistically smoothed data extracted from scores of samples. Through dendrochronology, sequoias speak collectively as populations, and speak honestly. However, their individual arborescence—their personhood—gets lost in the process.

Giant sequoias; Sequoia National Park, USA—© David Noton

In the human quest to find and learn from the oldest living trees comes the most riveting part of Elderflora: the profile of scientist Edmund Schulman and his persistent advances in the field of dendroclimatology (reconstruction of past climate events via tree rings). A religious Jew from Brooklyn, Schulman lived his life chasing opportunity and, later, running up mountains to higher and higher elevations to find seemingly unimpressive, stunted trees that he was sure were older than the giant sequoias. His discovery of the “oldest known living thing” in the late 1950s was that of Methuselah—a Great Basin bristlecone pine that clocks in at over 4,500 years old. (The exact age of the tree is confusing since official sources list varying numbers.)

For a history book, this part of Elderflora dramatically shines with a tantalizing rhythm that would not allow me to put the book down. Like Schulman, I was propelled to keep going until I understood how these windblown trees had survived and thrived in dry, high, and severe conditions for thousands of years. For the sake of science, the eccentric researcher felled more than one millennial tree—an act that stirred emotional turmoil within him. Schulman was drawn to the high White Mountains of eastern California despite health ailments that altitude only worsened. But he embodied the bristlecone pine in his resilience to keep the pursuit for knowledge going, despite prejudice against him and little support from other scientists in the field.

Mortal thoughts come too easily. Before driving up the mountain, Edmund confides to his brother, and his nephew overhears: “I’m walking on eggshells.” Dr. Cohen in Tucson has diagnosed him with arteriosclerosis and hypertension. He has difficulty breathing at high altitude. His ideal site is not ideally located—too far from the road. But he’s tantalizingly close to a lifetime’s worth of data. For some trees, the longest, cleanest cores aren’t enough. He sacrifices Pine Beta, too, for the cause of understanding the slow-dying biology of the “pickaback,” a morphological type he sees all over Methuselah Walk and nowhere else. Such trees have been shutting down for centuries, one root section, one bark strip at a time, all the way down to a single strip, only to restart in an undead sector where growth has been suppressed for a thousand years or more, producing a young strip of bark on the back of an ancient one. In a five-hour ordeal, Schulman and an assistant carry the cross-sectioned torso of Beta on a stretcher to the car.

Schulman’s research lab in the White Mountains is now a tourist attraction—a grove that is his namesake. It was this same storybook old forest where I faced my own moral dilemma in my search for a toilet. Methuselah (originally named “Great-Gramps” by Schulman) is not currently marked. This is for the tree’s protection as tourists and photographers in the 1960s got too close to the tree when it carried an identifying sign, causing trampled soil and missing limbs. Nonetheless, tourists from all walks of life visit the sacrosanct site. I was sure I would be able to tell which tree was the eldest, but Methuselah was not identifiable among her similarly senior kin. But she was everywhere. She was every tree and every twisted branch. She was the entire odd-looking forest. And the whole forest was Methuselah.

For nonscientists, the “real” Methuselah retains totemic power. Visitors to Schulman Memorial Grove want to see the oldest living thing known to science, four and one half millennia old, knowing ahead of time they won’t know when they’ve seen it. Their walk past the tree is an act of agnostic faith. No one seems dissatisfied when they return to the parking lot, having crossed the grove—what the Forest Service calls a “scientific resource”—off their bucket list.

… The majority come in reverence, and leave in humility, believing they have experienced the numen of Methuselah, the aura of scientific discovery—and, increasingly, a foreboding. Whereas Edmund Schulman drove up the mountain without local prohibitions or premodern fears about felling elderflora, visitors in his tracks bring global anxieties. What would it signal about the planet if its oldest trees died? The postwar history of Schulman’s over-aged conifers is the history of ancient trees in modern times, concentrated and accelerated.

Bark of a bristlecone pine; White Mountains, USA—© David Welling

Do trees need humans? It’s obvious to anyone who visits the White Mountains that ancient bristlecone pines survived here because they lived in isolated, harsh conditions where humans could not interfere too invasively, even if they wanted to. But after Schulman’s discovery of their unique longevity, Methuselah, the eldest, was put in a more vulnerable position. There are many examples throughout the book of old trees and whole species of trees that greatly benefitted from human care. In Methuselah’s case, however, she was doing fine until Schulman put her on the map.

Trees keep on living in place—until something happens, as something will, sooner or later, or later still. Some external force will end a woody plant’s indefinite experience of placetime. In a biosphere dominated by Homo sapiens, a fire-starting and tree-felling species, elderflora achieve longest life by being remote as possible from the depredations of people, or close as possible to their care. For a plant to become a perdurable, it must be preadapted to long living, of course, and also fortunate in time and place. 

Farmer explains this phenomenon as a universal human predicament—scientific discoveries can lead to loss. We want to see how other beings live, hear their silent advice on how to propel longevity and memorize these secrets. Along this path of edification, we arrogantly walk with the power to destroy the very thing we are trying to understand. At some point, because we are human, we come to regret some of these pursuits.

Our imaginations will naturally strive to revive the things we lost despite our involvement in their demise. For example, many modern conservation efforts in the U.S. protect remaining slim stands of old-growth forests by transforming them into outdoor museums. Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida takes visitors on a 2.25-mile adventure into the largest old-growth bald cypress forest in North America, while a paved interpretive trail in Hartwick Pines State Park in the Lower Peninsula of Northern Michigan is home to a 49-acre parcel of 400-year-old white pines. The Hartwick trees were ironically saved in 1927 by the daughter and heir of a prominent lumberman. In return for her preservation efforts, she requested that a logging museum also be built in the same park. Here, in one road trip stop, Michigan tourists can see some of the oldest pine trees in the state and learn about the very industry that brought them down. Others, mainly scientists and botanists, are working on propagating old and new tree species together by replanting seedlings grown from the cloned genetic material of the old. This time loop of searching and learning, using and destroying, then protecting, enshrining, or duplicating keeps the human species and ancient trees intertwined for the long haul.

…the dominant Western narrative about nature in the modern period can be summed up in a phrase: discovery and loss. Explorers and scientists, imperial white men, “discover” new species, unknown peoples, unnavigable rivers, unclimbed peaks, latest old things. They navigate, they summit, they survey, they measure, they name, they core, they claim. They create knowledge that permits forests to be cleared, roads to be blasted, rivers to be dammed, minerals to be extracted. They feel pride about progress, mixed with regret. They have “imperial nostalgia” for old landscapes, old languages, old ways, and old trees they helped to eliminate. So, they apply a portion of their developmental ethic and their accumulated capital toward saving pieces of depopulated Eden, and restoring damaged parcels back to imagined presettlement conditions.

Farmer is sure that humans and nonhumans would lose “a world of things” if ancient trees died prematurely. Old trees sustain forest communities and are beneficial to scientific exploration. They also provide humanity with moral grounding: “They help people make sense of—and make amends for—their destructive capacities,” he writes. Most importantly, old trees make us more human by encouraging us to be ourselves:

Homo sapiens, the “wise people,” the earthly beings who tell cosmic stories and who contemplate their future as well as their past. Stories of sanctified plants are among the oldest living stories. These narratives make reality. Around the world, in shrines and temples and churchyards, local adherents give care to storied trees planted centuries ago—or, just recently, the latest in a long, unbroken sequence of consecrated plantings. Meanwhile, agents of modern states guard secular sacred groves: natural monuments and national parks devoted to naturally occurring megaflora and elderflora. By keeping up or starting long-term relationships with long-lived plants, caregivers maintain (or recover, or reinvent) links to premodern pasts. Simply by hoping to prolong interspecies attachments through the great diminution, people exercise intergenerational sapience. Their hope is a rejection of The End, an affirmation that there will be—must be—tomorrow.

Mountain ash seedling; Wester Ross, Scotland—© Laurie Campbell

Although we don’t know what tomorrow will look like, we do know that old trees are in danger. We’re in danger, too. All living things must one day die. “Forest dieback does not always spell forest doomsday, yet the demise of olden trees represents an ecological loss, a cultural impoverishment, and a social problem,” Farmer writes. While he agrees that the speed of climate change is concerning, he also has faith in evolution and relies on the distinction that ecologists draw between disturbance and catastrophe. Old trees live by continuously dying, every day, since their birth as seedlings. They keep on dying for as long as they live.

In effect, every functioning ecosystem exists in recovery mode. How well it bounces back—its resilience—depends on the scale of the exogenous disturbance as well as endogenous factors like species richness and the adaptable traits contained within any given genome….

Extinction becomes catastrophic in the ecological sense, in addition to the moral sense, when the scale of genomic loss forces resets of ecosystems. So far, global heating has been a disturbance—even a megadisturbance—for forest ecosystems, not yet a catastrophe. In abstract evolutionary terms, the climate-forced dieback of trees is simply strong selection. Ideally, deaths open niches for diversification and migration. On the current planet, though, biodiversity continues to plummet due to land use and resource extraction. Destroyed habitats and obstructed corridors are everyday catastrophes.

Old forests can overcome disturbances by adapting to a changing environment. Europe’s last “primeval” forest, Białowieża, exemplifies this hope. Located between Poland and Belarus, Białowieża represents an ancient and constantly changing ecological community. Despite the building of dirt roads by Russian managers who organized tsarist hunting parties, the forest was unharmed during World War I, and in the communist era it became a national park and a World Heritage Site. More recently in 2015, politics coupled with an outbreak of native bark beetles contributed to the opening of Białowieża to commercial loggers. Although mature trees suffer most from increasingly severe climatic disturbances, the forest itself shifts and continues to regenerate in other ways.

Despite degradation of its buffer zone, Białowieża National Park remains a dynamic ecosystem for now. At the community level, it is ancient precisely because it’s changeable and changeful. In the 1920s, ecologists projected a future forest without linden; today, linden thrives. Hornbeams march forward, with maples close behind. On the other side of the ledger, ash falls back from fungal disease, and spruce declines from beetles. In general, current climate stressors select against tall conifers and massive oaks.

If Białowieża must contain all these iconic plant forms to count as “primeval,” the forest is indeed dying. But if the essence of its antiquity is processual, the forest can endure even as change accelerates… Endowed with more than fifty native woody species, Białowieża should have enough biodiversity to keep up the olden process of changing with the times. This resilience benefits far more than megafauna. The greatest ecological importance of Białowieża—as Europe’s hotspot for mushrooms, mosses, and lichens—may be small-scale.

The example of changing with the times, enduring, compensating here and there as other parts of the whole system grow weak, is perhaps the greatest wisdom that old trees impart to humans. And we can—we should—follow their lead. The choice is one of cynicism and short-term thinking, including grief over the loss of old trees and devastation for the bleak future of our planet, versus a more long-term perspective. The alternative is to take notes of how things are now, remember and pass down these stories, simultaneously and collectively plant new seeds, and imagine how the forest will look in the future. Maybe tree time means painting a picture of the forest as it is at this moment, and sharing that image with the next generation of young things to one day compare with the reality outside their window.

Farmer does not question that all things must end, but asserts that humans can intervene and decide how long we can prolong the dying process. “A great transition will happen one way or another—either catastrophically, with a fast-changing planet undoing its changers,” he writes, “or deliberately, with enough people working together to revitalize the cycle of the young becoming the old who sustain new youth. In oldness is the rejuvenation of the world.”

Humans can’t stop the big trees from falling. There will always be individuals who exacerbate the problem—unknowingly or because they think it’s for the greater good. The alternative is to embrace tree time. Get comfortable with the uncertainty of how time will play out relying, as Farmer suggests, on the resilience of ecosystems, the endurance of stories, the ability of humans to move slowly and venerate rather than panic and give up. Tree time is thinking long-term—extremely long term, beyond our bodies as individuals, beyond one felled tree, beyond an extinction of a species.

Even mass diebacks of big, old trees, already in progress, need not entail the extinction of elderflora. After an interregnum, renewed old-making should be possible. Because long-lived plants have been introduced widely, hotspots of longevity could be every here and there. Someday, in changed habitats and modified cities, vegetal life-forms should again achieve the status of ancient beings—if humans in the future still venerate such things. Old Ones will survive as long as people hope for and sorrow over—and give care to—young life that might live long.

I peed in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. With millennial trees watching—either laughing or scolding—I found a place to squat somewhere private, not too far off the trail but away from the oldest-looking things. I am not proud of this act, but I recognize that I had few options. I’ve always used restroom facilities before any nature excursion but after my time with the Ancients, I’m even more prepared. However, after reading Elderflora, I sometimes allow myself to take comfort in the possibility that maybe I helped a few square inches of soil diversify by being as unintrusive as humanly possible. And maybe telling this embarrassing story is the best thing I can do for the trees.

All excerpts from Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees, by Jared Farmer. Copyright © 2022 by Jared Farmer. Used by permission of Basic Books.

Milky Way over bristlecone pine; Utah, USA—© Anthony Heflin

Lolita Brayman

Christy Frank

Lolita Brayman is a human rights lawyer and freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work and reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border, Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Middle East has appeared in Foreign Policy, National Geographic, The Washington Post, The Nation, Reuters, among others. She holds a public policy M.A. in international conflict resolution and mediation.

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