Don’t you sometimes think to yourself, “What were they thinking?” when you hear about some major blunder. I’m frequently astonished at the lack of foresight and regard by people of all walks of life. We can think of many examples of such a lack of mindfulness as we scan newspapers, history books, and the web.
One event that completely baffles me is the felling of the oldest living tree on earth. Many others have been puzzled and alarmed by the cutting down of the Prometheus Tree in Great Basin National Park near Baker, Nevada in the western United States.
The official designation of the ancient tree, WPN-114, was given by geologist Donald Currey. He was involved in research to evaluate climates of long ago. It had been determined that bristlecone pine trees were the oldest living tree species. Analysis of trunk cross-sections and core samples found that bristlecone pines could grow to be as old as 4,700 years of age. In fact, the Methuselah Tree,
discovered in 1957, was dated at more than 4,700 years. A few explanations have been given as to why Currey needed to cut down such an old tree. Since he was investigating the “Little Ice Age”, he didn’t need to use any trees much older than 600 years old. There were many examples of those in the Wheeler Peak Grove.
For whatever reason used at the time, WPN-114 was cut down and sliced into sections on August 6, 1964. Many of the slices were taken out of the park then analyzed by Currey and other researchers. Some of the sections have been saved. One can be found at the Great Basin National Park visitors center in eastern Nevada. Others are stored in Tucson, Arizona and at the Institute of Forest Genetics in Placerville, California. The age of WPN-114 was determined to be almost 5,000 years old.
Almost immediately, the wisdom of destroying any such ancient tree was questioned. The oldest of the ancient trees were valuable as a living organisms by their own merits alone.
Scientists and conservationists asked many questions. Does anybody own such trees in the first place? What criteria might determine the assessment of value to the trees? More importantly, were the ancient trees being purloined and claimed wrongfully? Was the U.S. Forest Service guilty in a breach of public trust over the preservation of natural national treasures in this case?
One man fueled discussion over the felling of the Prometheus Tree. Darwin Lambert was editor and a reporter for the “Ely Daily Times” newspaper until 1961. He was manager of the White Pine area chamber of commerce. Lambert served as a Nevada assemblyman. He was also a member of the National Parks and Conservation Association governing board from 1958 until 1983. Before 1959, Lambert had already submitted detailed, serious proposals for legislating the Wheeler Park vicinity into national park status. Finally, 22 years later, the area was indeed legislated as a National Park.
In an article published by “Audubon” magazine in 1968 called “Martyr for a Species”, Lambert had this to say: “Fewer than fifty people saw Earth’s oldest known living tree alive.”
When Lambert first came across the grove of ancient trees in 1956, he noted his observations of one tree. “…stooped as under a burden, with roots like claws grasping the ground—a magnificent monster standing alone.”.. Four spans of my outstretched arms, six feet to the reach, were needed to encircle the misshapen trunk. Not far away were more colossi, some still larger and more grotesque.”
Before the giant tree was labeled WPN-114 in 1964, Lambert and his fellow conservationists had given the tree the name “Promethius” after the God who stole fire and the arts and gave them to humanity. The God who was sentenced, by Zeus, to a mountaintop. An eagle ate his liver each day, the liver regrew each night, only to be eaten again the next day. This went on for ages, until Prometheus was rescued by Hercules.
Lambert wrote, in 1968, that, “Earth’s oldest living thing was casually killed (yes murdered!) in the name of science.”
Currently, the oldest known living organism, by default, is the “Methuselah Tree in the White Mountains. The exact location of that tree is kept secret because of the fear that tourists will vandalize it or take off pieces as souvenirs.
The Blue Jay of Happiness thinks it would be interesting to be able to communicate with old trees. We could then find out how and what they endured as they survived through the ages.