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How Old is Old?

You may never have wondered where the oldest tree in the world stands, and the concept had not occurred to me until I visited Israel recently. In Gethsemane, I discovered olive trees which have been around for more than 800 years. I have, however, recently learned of a tree in Nevada, at 1,400 years of age, which is the oldest on the planet.

The ancient Great Basin bristlecone pines have twisted trunks, which simulate thick ropes, due to centuries of gusting wind and rain. They tend to thrive in this area because little else does. The 3,400 metre or 11,000-foot altitude is void of grass, brush, and virtually no pests. In other words, there is no competition for these trees to survive. Of course, there are no people to start wildfires and no nearby trees to spread pathogens.

Standing solitarily, year after year, these ancient wonders are left alone to simply exist. They store water in needles, which can live for decades and pack on the teensiest bit of mass at a time. The wood grows so slowly, it gets too dense for beetles or diseases to penetrate.

These bristlecone pines, on Mount Washington in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, have become so iconic their images are stamped on the back of American quarters. One such tree, named Methuselah, was 4,853 years old when it was accidentally destroyed in 1964.

Donald Rusk Currey, an American professor of geography, got his tree corer stuck in Methuselah. A park ranger tried to help him get it out by cutting the tree down. They did a ring count and found it was planted over 4,800 years ago. I wonder how he felt. The whereabouts of its location has been kept secret, as tourism would destroy what is left of the tree, not to mention the other bristlecone pines nearby.

Patagonian cypresses, also known as alerces, native to Chile and Argentina, have long been recognized as the world’s second longest-lived tree species. In the early 1990s, by counting tree rings on a cut stump, a Patagonian cypress was found to be more than 3,600 years old.

It is hard to imagine a tree, or anything, being that old. Methuselah, the bristlecone pine, would have sprouted leaves before the pyramids were erected at Giza and nearly two thousand years before the birth of Christ. Wow, and I thought I was getting old.

Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube.

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