Tales From The Oldest Living Organisms

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Trees and mountains linked together by environment and age.

Trees and mountains linked together by environment and age.

There are but a very few places in this country where a very special type of tree grows.  Limited to high altitudes and the most extreme weather imaginable, in the high Rockies and in the White Mountains of California they live on for centuries, some for millenia.  In fact some individuals are dated to over 4,500 years old.  They are the Bristlecone Pines whose incredibly slow growth subjects them to countless winters of hurricane force winds and arctic level temperatures and the summers are comparatively short.

In some mountain communities in Colorado near these ancient neighbors the joke is that there are actually only two seasons… July and Winter.  We are taught in schools from our books that there is no such thing as cold, tat is there is no cold “force” or energy, only a lack of heat.  But spend a winter in the high mountains and you will think of cold quite differently. Run outside in -20 to -50 temperatures and cold will become a very real “force” to you.

The mountains and the trees are inextricably bound together; rugged nearly ageless survivors they watch over each other, huddle together against the frozen blasts of deep winter, and revel in the brief warmth of the summer sun.  Their forms are twisted and bent by relentless forces of wind and ice.  The mountains’ jagged spires and the trees’ polished grain are so different on the surface but they are brothers and sisters in their hearts, bound by their common survival like combat veterans and laughing at the same passages of time that terrifies we far more ephemeral creatures that have so comparatively little time on the stage.

All of the men and women of recorded history have come and gone, made their marks or disappeared into obscurity during the same period when some of these trees have been alive.  Some were but seedlings when Moses made his epic journey, some were young saplings learning to lean into the wind when Alexander was conquering his part of the world.  Some standing today were already adults producing their own unique bristled cones when Ceasar fell on the steps of the Forum.  I never tire of seeing them and being among them.

This past long weekend I conducted a photo workshop into the heart of the White Mountain Ancient Bristlecone Pine forest east and UP from Bishop, California and across the Owens Valley from the Sierra Nevadas.   I was joined by co-instructor Stephen Burns, a real Photoshop wizard, and good friend and photo colleague Lee Peterson.

Our trek started a little lower in Lone Pine where we met and spent an evening and morning first in the alien terrain of The Alabama Hills.  I have shot the dawn light all over the main part of the valley, watching the salmon colored strip of light flash on Whitney’s crags and then slip silently down the flanks of the Sierras until it fills the valley with its glow.  This blog has the narrative and images from many trips to this location. But in giving the participants a tour of the area it struck me for the first time that perhaps an unusual vantage point would be from the old corral where I usually shot sunset images.  So I went early and gave it a try.

Sunrise over the abandoned corral along Tuttle Creek int he Alabama hills.

Sunrise over the abandoned corral along Tuttle Creek int he Alabama hills.  This is not an HDR but rather an exposure blend allowing me to capture the firs light on the Sierras and also the first light on the brush in a single image.  Shot with a 24mm Tilt/Shift lens.

Then I went into town and  to my favorite restaurant (The Alabama Hills Cafe & Bakery) for breakfast (where I had watched the old couple whose love story I recounted a few posts back).  After far too much to eat it was off for a preliminary taste of altitude at the waterfall at the Whitney Portal Trail head.

Workshop participants scramble for a point of view at the base of the waterfall at the  Whitney Portal trailhead.

Workshop participants scramble for a point of view at the base of the waterfall at the Whitney Portal trailhead.

A shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second catches the sparkle of the splashing water cascading down the rocks of what the USGS map calls a "rapids."

A shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second catches the sparkle of the splashing water cascading down the rocks of what the USGS map calls a “rapids.”

In the afternoon we all headed for the White Mountain Research Station, a wonderful facility owned now by UCLA and available to educational research and groups.  I’ve been here often and am always in love with the place’s magical ability to soothe the spirit and recharge my batteries.

Perhaps it is because this high place (10,150 ft in elevation) reminds me so much of my Rockies and home with the clean crisp air and skies filled to the brim with stars that are hard to see through the clutter and pollution of the so-called “civilized” places.  The only sounds are the whispers of the trees talking to each other and the birds and animals recounting their day and calling to each other to say either please come and see me… or please stay away.

After a breakfast hand-made by the resident site manager and incredible cook, Tim, we were off to the Patriarch Grove of the Ancient Bristlecone Pines Forest.  These eldritch stalwarts were why we were here.  It was their gnarled tale we were here primarily to tell through the medium of our imagery.

One of the wind whipped trees in the Patriarch Grove of Ancient Bristlecone Pines.

One of the wind whipped trees in the Patriarch Grove of Ancient Bristlecone Pines.

Their voices are as soft as their growth is slow, but if you listen quietly they will shyly tell you their tale.  Each is different, each has the scars of their unique lives, medals earned from the events flowing from their specific spot on the hill and subject to the physics of the wind patterns and the effects of hard blown ice crystals twisting, pulling, shaping them like pretzels in the ovens of a schizophrenic baker.

Sometimes it is as if the wind has tied the grain of the wood in these old trees into knots.

Sometimes it is as if the wind has tied the grain of the wood in these old trees into knots. I wonder what note it sings when the wind is just right and whistled though it?

Here could have been inspiration for the sculptor Bancusi.

Here could have been inspiration for the sculptor Bancusi.

In addition to their neighbors in the groves of trees in the various little villages of trees, there are also lone trees here and there along the high ridges overlooking the valley far, far below.  These solitary warriors keep watch over the long years at the effects in the valley of those frenetic scurrying short lived creature in the valley who draw lines in the ground, cover the back of the poor earth with scabs of concrete, and hurriedly scurry up and down it as if it mattered.

Standing guard on a ridge line several thousand feet above the valley floor, an old sentinel is still loyally at its post.

Standing guard on a ridge line several thousand feet above the valley floor, an old sentinel is still loyally at its post.

But the trees know.  They have seen it all from their lofty perch, safe from the ravages of those creatures with barely the time to run up, look around, and leave but only because their home is in such an extreme place.  If it were easier they would long ago been sacrificed as trophies to prove someone actually made it up there.  They do not need to move around, the birds and animals bring them all the news they need.

Few of my human tribe come, as we did, to walk and sit and lie by them to hear their tales and learn from their ancient wisdom.  Some will be back to learn more and the trees will be there, waiting, smiling to see their returning students and wondering if a single word they whispered was heard and understood.

Up at that altitude, the night sky is amazingly clear most of the time.  One clear night students went abroad to make photographs of it.  Several got some great views of the Milky Way.  I confess I was tired and wimped out;  I simply went out in the sage-covered “yard” in front of the main lodge building and aimed the camera upward.  Any direction would work…

Night sky from the WMRS lodge.

Night sky from the WMRS lodge.  The lights on the porch illuminate some of the sage and a parked car by the dorm rooms.  The view is looking more or less east. The exposure is f4 at 30 seconds with an ISO of 6400.

And then, in a time span that to the trees is less than an eye-blink to us, it was time to go and to return to a place the trees could only feel was frenzied and chaotic; a place where, if they had the misfortune to be located there, they would have long ago been felled to create stuctures which would last but a tiny fraction of the time their living donors would have graced the environment.

When we have our “show and tell” it will be interesting to see what stories, what lessons, what wisdom their imagery may reveal.  I wish that the trees could be there to see what these short-lived creatures may have heard and learned from them.

And I wonder if they would be happy… or sad at what they would see.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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4 Responses to Tales From The Oldest Living Organisms

  1. Carole Massey says:

    Great article David. Thanks a million for the time and effort you took to write about it. Made me stop and think…love your perspective.

    • ndking says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Carole, I do appreciate them.  But it was no effort really.  It was pretty much complete in my mind by the time I got home and working on the photos simply reinforced the concepts.  It is such a magical place!

      On Tue, 2 Jul 2013 13:49:03 +0000, Travels with Rocinante

  2. Stunning photographs! Loved them so very much.

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