In A Nutshell
In 1964, a bristlecone pine tree was cut down in Nevada in the name of scientific research. After counting the rings several times it was determined to be the oldest tree found on earth. Incidentally it had been alive when cut down, and an emotional and political storm followed.
The Whole Bushel
In 1964, Donald Currey was looking for evidence concerning the “Little Ice Age,” a period of time between approximately the years 1300 and 1800 where the Earth’s temperature presumably dropped slightly, reaching its lowest point sometime in the 1600s. He was hoping to find a tree that had lived through this entire period so that he could study its growth rings. He got much more than he bargained for.
He located a tree in what is now Great Basin National Park in Nevada and decided to use a Swedish tree-coring tool to take a sample. However, the wood was quite dense, and the tree was large, and at some point he got his coring tool stuck. Too stuck to get out . . . without a chainsaw.
So he asked the Forest Service District Ranger if he could cut it down. At this point, nobody knew how old these trees really were. They were living in a harsh climate, had grown slowly and laboriously, and the tree he was asking about was a gnarled, beaten-looking tree, appearing somewhat puny at only five meters (17 ft) tall. The District Ranger checked with his superior to make sure it was okay and, after getting permission, went with Currey to help him cut it down.
After laboriously cutting down, chopping up, and hiking out pieces of the tree, the real work began—counting the rings. When he had counted them all (more than once, just to be sure), it appeared that the tree was over 5,000 years old. At the time, this made it the oldest known tree in the world. And he had killed it.
Unbeknownst to him at the time of the cutting, there were actually a small group of people who loved the trees in the stand from which he had cut . . . and they had even named them. The tree he cut down was named Prometheus, and the cutting of Prometheus became a powerful symbol in an ensuing battle over whether science is worth the cost of the resources it destroys.
The media and public went to town with accusations. Politicians got involved. Different agencies responsible for the natural resources of the area blamed each other. Local newsman Darwin Lambert wrote a paper titled “Martyr for a Species.” Words such as “murder” and “rape” were thrown around carelessly. But ultimately, nothing was decided, and the world eventually moved on.
It is now estimated that the tree was closer to 4,800 years old rather than the original guess of more than 5,000. It’s not as easy as just counting the rings because a new ring is not necessarily produced every year. Just think: We might never have known about it at all if Donald Currey hadn’t gotten the Forest Service to cut it down.
Show Me The Proof
Radiolab: Be Careful What You Plan For
Oldest Living Tree Tells All