Bristlecone Pines

I started collecting bonsai after I settled down in Los Angeles around 1990. The most stunning bonsai looked like ancient trees that had struggled to survive and the best models in nature were the bristlecone pines. With ages of living trees exceeding 4,600 years and dead wood that lasts for 10,000 years, the bristlecone pines have been used in climate studies.

They survive to great age by living at the edge – timberline at 11,000 feet elevation in the arid White Mountains of California, east of the town of Bishop in the Owens Valley. My work has been featured at the White Mountain Visitors Center.

While it started as studies for bonsai, I found an isolated location on an arid wind-blown ridge to be exhilarating. You could see forever. I called it Bill’s Ridge and only twice in ten years did I see anyone near it. Bill’s Ridge is 24 miles up a dirt road and the nearest motel is an hour and a half away. I learned to enjoy the shelter of my pickup truck and named it the Rolling Hilton.

The trees are trapped at timberline on what are known as ‘desert islands’. Mountains have zones of vegetation depending on the altitude with different plants at different elevations. The bristlecone pines are uppermost, trapped at timberline with no trees or shrubs above and competing groundcover at lower elevations that blocks their descent. The trees are the oldest living organisms on the planet if you don’t count colony vegetation that spreads new growth through roots. They have adapted to their location by letting parts of themselves die off in harsh centuries and living on through a single ‘life line’ that can expand into a new trunk with the dead wood still attached.

Sitting with trees over 4,000 years old on a barren ridge of limestone, looking out over the landscape until it fades into the distant mist, lights twinkling on the horizon, there is a great sense of openness and time. Daily concerns evaporate. In the weeks after 9-11, I spent a lot of time on Bill’s Ridge watching the sky devoid of air planes and wondering what violence would man do to man next. Whenever I need a time of solace and perspective, it is my refuge.