Don Currey was a 30-year-old graduate student when he cut down the world’s oldest tree.
A brown-eyed, sun-tanned geography student at the University of North Carolina, Don was striking in his looks and his ambitions: to better understand Ice-Age glaciology by examining bristlecone trees. And so he found himself in Nevada in the summer of 1964 amid a grove of bristlecones on Wheeler Peak Mountain when his tree corer got stuck in a tree.
Since it would not come out, a park ranger helped him remove his instrument by cutting down the tree. Don began to count its rings and eventually realized, much to his dismay, that he had felled a tree that was 4,844 years old — what was then considered the oldest tree on the planet.
The tragic mistake advanced geographers’ understanding of longevity, which had been correlated with size of tree, like the Redwoods of California. Ice-burnished bristlecone pines, with their storybook swirls on gnarled limbs — trees that peak at just 20 feet — are, it turns out, some of the oldest trees in the world.
They’re able to live so long because, even if a large portion of a bristlecone is damaged by erosion or fire, small strips of living bark, which one researcher dubbed “life lines,” can function and keep the tree alive. A strip of bark that might be only two inches wide can support all of the tree’s foliage.
Adversity begets longevity, analysis suggested: The severe conditions the bristlecone endured over time actually helped extend its lifespan.
As I look ahead to 2017 and that which has never been, I’ve been thinking of all the history that has come before me — both as a Catholic and a member of my family. The communion of saints feels more alive to me than ever before — almost hauntingly so, yet comforting — the canonized ones and my ancestors, stories of resilience and grace and the life lines that sustained.
I’m resolving to study them this year and glean their stories and songs. I want to capture oral histories of those still living — the kind where I get out of the way and let them talk — and to read up on those no longer here.
Young adulthood may bring a sense of invincibility, throbbing with novelty and thrill, but lately, I’m feeling blessed and strengthened by my history. I want to dig deeper.
To begin, I’m reading Robert Ellsberg’s book “The Saints’ Guide To Happiness,” which frames that secular pursuit, an unalienable American right, in spiritual terms, showing how the saints’ capacity for goodness and love, ultimately, made them happy.
My biggest takeaway is the book’s message about learning to see and learning to love. “Our whole business in this life,” St. Augustine wrote, “is to restore to health the eyes of the heart, whereby God may be seen.”
That’s what happened to Thomas Merton, Ellsberg recounts, when he was on an errand in the shopping district of Louisville, Kentucky, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut. “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs . . . ,” Merton wrote. “It was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.”
I tear up when I read this passage. What more could we hope for in the new year than to share in that vision?