Earth's oldest living things

Today I drove to Grandview Campground, in the White Mountains East of Bishop, CA. This is a primitive but beautiful campground, one of my all time favorites. Tonight Pepper and I got to listen to a great campfire talk by one of the experts in the field of dendrochronology (tree-ring dating). He talked about how he does field work, and how some new gadgets make his job so much easier, at very low cost. Coincidentically, the gadgets are things which I use, make, and enjoy. Specifically, he uses small handheld GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers to figure the locations of samples which he collects, and then uses GIS (Geographic Information System) software to map the locations. Finally he uses FRS (Family Radio Service) walkie-talkies to communicate with his co-workers in the field. I happen to have a GPS and FRS radios in the van, and I write GIS software for a living, so his talk strikes home.

He goes into good detail about how they have been able to track 8000 years of continuous history of the climate around here. They also have some samples of wood that go back further, according to their Carbon-14 estimates, but they're not sure exactly how much further, because there's a gap in their timeline of tree-ring dates. Their mission is to find specimens which will bridge that gap. When they extend their tree-ring timeline back further, they can use that information to calibrate Carbon-14 dating techniques, making C-14 dating more accurate for archeologists and other researchers worldwide.

He uses all those gadgets for his research work. There's only a very short part of the year when he's able to collect samples of wood up at this high altitude. So he and his team collect lots of samples rapidly during the summer, labelling what they're collecting, but not taking the time to date any of it. Almost all the samples they collect have ages that are already overlapped by other known samples, so they're of no scientific interest. However, he lives for the chance that one of the samples will extend the timeline into a previously unknown age. The samples won't be examined in detail until this winter, so when he finds that special sample, he wants to know its exact location, so that he can go back and get a second piece of that same wood next summer, if needed.

He passed around an 8000 year old piece of wood, telling us that's the oldest piece of wood we'll ever handle. It actually smells fresh, because it's been cut and sanded fairly recently so that the scientists can get a smooth surface on which to count rings. The climate up here is so harsh that few insects and microorganisms can survive to cause decomposition. The major cause of degradation is the wind blowing snow crystals against the wood, eroding its surface over thousands of years. There aren't many places in the world where you'd find an unrotted 8000 year old hunk of wood out lying on the ground.

I go to the bristlecone pine forest. On the way there, I saw a marmot (I think), and a Red-tailed Hawk. After checking in at the visitor center, I drove up a dirt road to the Patriarch Grove, up at 11,300 feet altitude. The sky was fairly blue here, even with the current forest fires in the Sierra. The rocks were white, making it easy to see why they call this "White Mountain".

I had the Patriarch grove to myself for about an hour. Just me, Pepper, chipmunks, and trees. I took lots of pictures, a few of which are presented here.

After I finished my hike, I made lunch there in the Patriarch Grove, and a few other visitors came by.

I drove back down to the visitor center and took the "Discovery Trail" through those bristlecones. This is where Dr. Schulman first discovered that some of these living trees were over 4,000 years old. I took more pictures.

I drove back to Grandview campground and revisited my favorite juniper tree. This is one that I had photographed when I was last here three years ago. I've spent a lot of time looking at that photo since then; it was the background for a computer screen I worked on a lot. I wanted to see if I could find the tree again, and photograph it in a different light, and different perspective. The first quarter moon was out, so I got down beneath the tree and photographed it reaching for the moon.

Back at camp, I made dinner (oriental salad, rice, and basil pesto ravioli in olive sauce. OK, it's not a coherent ethnic theme, but it's good food). I sat out stargazing, and tried taking a few star trail pictures. This was my first ever effort at this kind of picture, and I wasn't sure what to expect.

This star trail photo turned out to be one of the most interesting photos I made on the trip. I took it by putting the camera on a tripod at night and leaving the shutter open for a half hour (24mm f2.8 lens wide open, 400 speed film). The moon was at first quarter, which meant it was half illuminated, very bright and high in the sky just after sunset. It lit up the scene almost like daylight. There was no wind, so the tree branches look sharp and still. There was a lot of smoke in the Owens Valley to the left, due to several large forest fires. This produced a grey haze down low. If you look closely, you can see a small meteor streak directly above the North Star, about as far above Polaris as Polaris is above the top of the tree.

Between the smoke and the bright moon, this was one of the worst nights for stargazing that Grandview Campground ever experiences, because of all the extraneous glare. But it made for an interesting photo opportunity. And the worst night at Grandview is better than the best night at home.

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© 2000, Richard Cochran
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