A tree of life

Ed Smith
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Something a little different this week. You may already be familiar with the story of the Prometheus tree. It comes under the heading of “Oops, what did I just do!” You know, the things we do inadvertently, without ever meaning to, and usually with dire consequences.

“Oops, the rock I threw at the can went clean through the stained- glass window in the church!”

Or, “I accidentally left the two Rottweilers in the basement with the cat — oops.”

In 1963, Donald Curry was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina studying climate patterns during the Little Ice Age. This was a period stretching roughly from the 16th to the 19th century in which there were three distinct “cold”periods, separated by brief intervals of warmer temperatures.

Scientists are anxious to learn more about the Earth’s past climatic conditions. Knowing more about the Little Ice Age could help us understand what led to the last big Ice Age and how soon to expect the next one.

It’s well known that tree rings contain evidence of the climate characteristics in the year of that ring. Curry wanted to go back as far as he could to see what the tree rings said about the climate in the 1500s, for example. Consequently, he started looking for very old trees.

In 1964, he was made aware of a grove of older trees on a mountain called Wheeler’s Peak in Nevada. Accordingly, he made the trek up the mountain until he closed in on a group of rather shiny trees that looked old and gnarled and might contain a tree old enough to give him the kind of information he needed.

Plentiful pine

The grove had a great many Bristlecone pine trees, all of which seemed to be older than any Curry had ever run across. He was elated! He selected one that looked older than the rest and went to work.

The accepted method of getting ring samples from trees was to bore into the trunk and take out a core, from which the rings of the tree could be counted and studied. He proceeded to bore into the tree with a hand drill.

The tree he had chosen was unbelievably hard and Curry made little progress. But he was strong and he persisted. In fact, he persisted too much and suddenly the drill bit snapped off. He tried a second bit with the same result. He could not get far enough into the wood to get even a small sample.

Finally he walked back down the mountain to where there was a forest ranger station. Curry told them who he was and what he was doing there and the problem he was having trying to get a core sample.

The rangers were sympathetic. One of them contacted their superiors and permission was given to Curry to saw the tree down. The belief was that all the trees on that peak were quite old and one wouldn’t be missed.

Curry wasn’t much into cutting down trees, but he reasoned that he had a particularly good reason for putting a saw to this particular one. He would be adding important information to the rather sparse scientific knowledge about the period known as the Little Ice Age. That information might help them understand modern climate change and what we might expect over the next several decades.

Besides, he had the approval of the authorities in the area. He decided to do it.

Back up Wheelers Peak he trudged, lugging a heavy chainsaw.

Once more he cut into his tree, but even with a sharp saw he found progress to be slow and the work heavy going. But he kept at it until finally the tree lay on the ground before him. Success at last!

Determining age

The next step was to find out exactly how old this tree of his was. As soon as he could, he began counting rings. Again, as everyone knows, each ring in a tree corresponds to one year of its life. Curry was sure he had a tree that would take him back to the beginnings of the Little Ice Age.

 Imagine his amazement when he realized he had counted more than 1,000 rings and wasn’t even halfway through! He counted further and was sure he had made a mistake, so he painstakingly began again. And again! Each time he had the same result.

Curry knew that giant redwoods grow for hundreds of years. He also knew the oldest tree on record at that time had been growing 1,000 years before Christ was preaching around the shores of Lake Galilee. But this tree! According to the rings in its wood, it was just under 4,800 years of age!

It was the oldest non-clonal living plant ever found. Non-clonal plants are those that grow on their own, unconnected to any other plant, such as most of our trees and vegetables. Clonal plants, such as mushrooms, are all connected to one original plant, usually by underground roots. Plants of this type, especially those living in the ocean, have been found to be up to 100,000 years old.

But then he realized something else that was totally devastating for him. This tree was the oldest living thing that anyone had ever discovered — and he, Donald Curry, had killed it! Oops.

Missed opportunity

Word of what happened spread quickly and Curry became known as the killer of the oldest living tree. The story followed him like a bad smell for the rest of his life. He never studied trees again. Instead, he confined his scientific studies to the great salt flats where nary a tree ever grows.

Donald Curry might have been remembered as the man who discovered the oldest living individual organism on Earth. Sadly, he is remembered as the man who killed it. He died in 2004, at the age of 70.

Ed Smith is an author who lives in Springdale. His email address is   edsmith@nf.sympatico.ca.

Organizations: University of North Carolina

Geographic location: Nevada, Lake Galilee, Springdale

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