Everything’s expendable

Forty-eight years ago this month, one of the more embarrassing moments to ever occur in the history of biological sciences took place right here in Nevada. It remains a blooper of considerable achievement.

In the summer of ’64, Don Currey was a student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and his passion was the study of climate dynamics during the so-called Little Ice Age. His preferred data source was dendrochronology—the study of tree rings. In 1957, Edward Schulman of the University of California at Berkeley made the marvelous and unexpected discovery that bristlecone pine trees of the Great Basin, specifically the bristlecones in the White Mountains east of Bishop, were incredibly old. As in one tree, Methuselah, having an age of 4,700.

Currey became interested in another group of bristlecones, these in the remarkable grove of pines on the slopes of Nevada’s Wheeler Peak. He found that some of these trees were easily 3,000 years old, and he suspected that some specimens might be considerably older still. His hunch would soon be confirmed, in spades.

There was one tree, WP-114, that caught Currey’s eye. Wanting to get a sample of its core, the young scientist broke a couple of boring tools, and to get a new one would take too long, forcing all sampling to wait until the next summer. For reasons that remain murky, but can probably be written off to a string of traits and decisions that make all principals involved look horrifically lame, the green light was given to just go ahead and cut down WP-114. After all, there wasn’t much that was special about the tree, so let’s just chop it down and see what we got.

What they had, of course, was what was then believed to be the oldest living organism on the planet. (It is now believed to have been twice eclipsed.) After cutting it, Currey discovered the tree was at least 4,844 years old. Oops. Another researcher in Arizona said, no it’s more like 4,862. And when you add in a few necessary corrections for missing rings and other such permutations, it was very likely that WP-114 was over 5,000 years old. Double oops. WP-114, a plant that germinated in approximately 3000 B.C., is now the most celebrated stump in Great Basin National Park.

If you’re a tree fan, one of the nicest field trips you can make is to the Schulman Grove in the White Mountains east of Bishop, easily accessible via Cal. 168. This famous grove of bristlecones is at 9,000 feet, so have no fear, you’ll have the heat blissfully beat. There are few finer places in August, the trails through the trees are excellent, and you may well eat your tuna sandwich while leaning against the trunk of Methuselah itself. You see, no one knows which tree is The One, because it remains unsigned and anonymous. We at least learned that much 48 years ago.