Recently, while braving the wilds of Facebook, I came across a post about how both Pokémon and Tickle Me Elmo turned twenty this year, and how that is supposed to make us all feel old. Well, ok. I guess it’s kind of amusing to think about getting old if you’re part of that cohort of people who were into those things back in 1996. But to anyone older than that, which I think is still most people, calling these folks ‘old’ is kind of an insult.
I just turned 39, but even I know to keep my trap shut lest some forty-something come out of nowhere to smack me with a ruler and tell me to get off his lawn. So with that in mind, let me tell you about Prometheus, a Bristlecone Pine tree that ought to make all of us feel young again.
For those who haven’t spent much time Out West, the Bristlecone Pine, or Pinus longaeva, is a twisted, wretched-looking excuse for a conifer that flourishes at higher altitudes and can be found from eastern California and over to Colorado. The amazing thing about them though, is their epic longevity. Many specimens are thousands of years old, and the oldest among them were already there centuries before Egyptians got the idea to build the pyramids. Just think, somebody could’ve hatched the idea for the Sphinx while sitting under a tree you can still see today – that is, if only the geography had worked out.
Given that so many Bristlecone Pines have managed to cheat death for as long as they have, the species has naturally become a significant focus of interest among researchers. Such was the case in 1964 for a graduate student named Donald Currey, who was studying ice age glaciology on Wheeler Peak in eastern Nevada. Understanding that Bristlecone Pines can live thousands of years and that studying them might yield insights about the environment from which they originated, Currey received permission from the National Park Service to take core samples on some of the specimens that he thought might be particularly old. He was interested in counting the annual growth rings in order to see just how old they were, and focused specifically on one particular tree that locals had taken to calling Prometheus – so named for the figure from Greek mythology who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind.
Well, after breaking three of his tree boring tools while trying to get a useful sample from Prometheus, Currey asked if it would be alright to just cut the damn thing down and count the rings later. In their infinite wisdom, the Park service gave him the go-ahead to do so. Spoiler Alert: This was a bad move.
When the rings were finally counted from the stump, they added up to 4,862 – enough to qualify Prometheus as the (formerly) oldest living organism ON EARTH. Of course, nobody knew this at the time or else, one would hope, it would not have been felled to begin with. Nevertheless, the deed had been done. Criticism was heaped upon both Currey and the NPS, to which the latter responded by stepping up preservation efforts, ultimately leading to the creation of Great Basin National Park (where you can still see the stump of Prometheus off trail or view a cross-section of it at the visitors’ center). For his part, we can assume that Currey said he was really, really sorry and promised to never, ever kill something that old again.