Four Billion Years | In the Valley of the Ancients

In the Valley of the Ancients

November 17, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Every Northern Hemisphere autumn I take a short trip to the deserts of the Western U.S. A not insignificant portion of my photographic work comes from these trips. It is a geographic area to which I feel a deep attachment - to the land, not to the people. This past October I  spent a few days hiking and photographing in and around the Snake Range of Eastern Nevada. Some of the largest remaining groves of Great Basin bristlecone pines are located in the higher elevations of the range, protected inside Great Basin National Park. If you have never heard of bristlecone pines, what is special about them is that they are the oldest living beings on Earth. Some of them are over 4,000 years old. Think of it this way: when that seed sprouted the Trojan War was almost 1,000 years in the future, and another thousand years had to elapse before Julius Caesar was assassinated by Brutus. We are as removed in time from Cleopatra as she was from that seed. 

Their age gives bristlecone pines an internal beauty that few other living beings possess. Whenever I stand next to one I feel engulfed by its age and soothed by its wisdom. How many storms has it witnessed, how many sunrises and sunsets? To think that such a wonderful and innocent being can be killed in an instant by an idiot with a chainsaw, and that this has indeed happened, fills me with the sort of rage and contempt that, regrettably, I all too often feel towards my species. Bristlecones are also physically beautiful, but not in the way that a fir or a palm tree are beautiful. Not two bristlecones are alike. Each has endured its unique share of challenges over its long life and, as a result, each individual has a distinct, twisted, bent and angled shape. After a while, if you visit a grove again and again over the years, you recognize individuals and think of them as old friends, each of them with its own distinct personality. And it is not just the shapes that are unique, the details of the exposed wood, where the bark has died off, are also distinctive. And so are the dead trees, some of which are still standing hundreds of years after the last pine cone dropped to the ground and the last needle turned brown. For bristlecones tend to grow where there is no soil, sinking their roots in glacial till, where humidity is almost non existent. This, together with their very closely-packed wood and the cold dry climate of the high Great Basin ranges, keeps them from rotting. There is a saying in Spanish - los árboles mueren de pie - trees die standing upright. This phrase encapsulates the nobility of trees, all trees, but few other trees are the equals of bristlecones in this.

Bristlecone pine groves have distinctive sounds and smells as well, that in one's mind get forever entangled with the visual experience. It is only the latter that get recorded in photographs, however. Perhaps, if you have been fortunate enough to visit with the bristlecones, these images will bring back many of the sensory experiences of being there. The photographs that accompany this commentary were all taken in a beautiful bristlecone pine grove that grows in a glacial cirque in the high Snake Range of Nevada.



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Photos, commentary and opinions by  Alberto Patiño Douce

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