Sierra Magazine

Good Going

"I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do."
—Willa Cather

By Elisa Freeling

On the wind-whipped slopes of White Mountain, geriatric bristlecone pines submit to life’s tribulations. For millennia, the trees have clutched the shoulders of this parched 14,000-foot peak in California, overlooking the Great Basin to the east and the rain-robbing Sierra to the west. The granddaddy of the bristlecones is Methuselah, which, despite its name, sprouted here in prebiblical times, almost 5,000 years ago, at 9,600 feet. (Its precise location is kept secret to protect it.) It’s the oldest tree—and by some definitions, the oldest living thing—on Earth. Pinus longaeva has prevailed not despite the skimpy soil, short growing season, and scanty precipitation, but apparently because of them; bristlecone pines in cushier conditions don’t live nearly as long. The secret is frugality: Bristlecones maintain only a thin ribbon of living bark, keep their needles up to ten times as long as other pines, and grow so slowly that they average 100 rings per inch.

The hard knocks of this cold, rocky landscape have produced frugal fauna, too. Scientists at the White Mountain Research Station have discovered that local bighorn ewes sport more modest horns than their comparably sized Mojave Desert cousins. The hemoglobin in the blood of high-elevation deer mice holds onto oxygen better than that of its lower-elevation relatives, which may enable the animal to keep up foraging, courtship, and other important activities year-round. And the rare and teeny Inyo shrew, which needs to eat every few hours to survive, inhabits the talus above the glacial ice at the summit, likely subsisting on freeze-dried insects blown onto the snow.

With its ancient traces of life, the 600-million-year-old White Mountain range inspires the long view in humans, too. The university research station is proposing to run its facilities on wind, solar, and hydrogen energy, calling for the creation of an "almost mythical place that has freed itself from the shackles of petroleum dependence," a "wondrous mountaintop . . . on the edge of Earth’s most ancient forest."

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