by Sara Tekula.
The first time I heard the name Methuselah, it was in the Book of Genesis. He was Noah’s grandfather, and was memorable because he supposedly lived to be almost 1,000 years old. He died around the same time as The Great Flood.
Much later in life, as I listened closer to stories about the Earth to do research for the Plant a Wish documentary project, I heard there was a famous tree with the same name. I knew instantly that it must be a really old tree.
A bristlecone pine living outside of Death Valley, California, the “Methuselah tree” is now estimated at being 4,841 years old – the oldest known living specimen on the earth. (To put that into perspective, it germinated around the time when the Great Pyramid was being built.) Its exact location is kept secret to prevent vandalism, and the conditions where it lives are nothing but the ultimate in extreme. Not much else is able to exist there.
“There is something a little fantastic, ” wrote Edmond Schulman in the March 1958 National Geographic, “in the persistent ability of a 4,000 year old tree to shut up shop almost everywhere throughout its stem in a very dry year, and faithfully to reawaken to add many new cells in a favorable year.”
What do we have to learn from dating a Methuselah tree? We learn that the oldest living things on earth are resilient creatures. They can stay alive when nothing else around them lives. They reach their roots and branches around to where life is – making them curve and twist like fine blown glass. The trunks of ancient bristlecone pine like Methuselah are so distorted that new rings may form at right angles to ones formed before (this makes their rings very difficult to count).
They’re not especially tall – and their relatively short stature is one reason scientists think they have such great survival skills – bigger is not better in the brutal environment where they live.
While on tour this summer, we decided to make a special stop at the University of Missouri in Columbia. The Missouri Tree Ring Laboratory is there, and we spent time with Dr. Mike Stambaugh (Researcher at the Lab) to talk about what tree rings can tell us about the environment that existed before written records were kept. We did a nice sit-down interview with him outside the Lab, and then he showed us around inside.
Have a look at Rachel’s “Clip of the Week”, where Dr. Mike shares some tree ring (dendrochronology) specimens with us.
Photo by Cesar Fernandez Photography.
Diagram copyright V. Moerbitz 2006.