Mono Lake and the Oldest Trees in the World

Billy here.

Our friend Machete met us in Ashland with Max and parted ways with us to wander the national forests of northern California with sheep herder nomads, living off of sheep milk and foraged plants.  We took Max home to New Mexico via California and our first stop was Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierras near the Nevada border.

Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes in North America, anywhere from one to three million years in age. It has a thriving ecosystem containing birds, brine shrimp, algae and alkali flies. Amazing carbonate structures called tufa, a type of limestone, formed pillars under the surface of the lake around springs bubbling up through the lake. In 1941 the city of Los Angeles began diverting the tributaries that fed Mono Lake, which caused the water level of the lake to drop over 40 feet over the next several decades and the salinity of the water increased to almost three times that of the ocean. The ecosystem of the lake was on the verge of collapse when efforts began to be made to conserve the lake and the now exposed and eroding tufa pillars in the late ’70s; however, any real checks on water diversion were not solidified until the ’90s.

In the time it took the lake and tufa to form, one to three million years, the entire existence of homo sapiens (about 200,000 years by current conjecture) could have happened five to fifteen times over and yet one city nearly destroyed it in the space of one human lifetime.

Our next stop was the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, home of the oldest trees in the world.  Here is a description from the National Park Service website:

Great Basin Bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) are remarkable for their great age and their ability to survive adverse growing conditions. In fact, it seems one secret to their longevity is the harsh environment in which most bristlecone pines grow.

Bristlecone pines in Great Basin National Park grow in isolated groves just below treeline. Conditions are harsh, with cold temperatures, a short growing season, and high winds. Bristlecone pines in these high-elevation environments grow very slowly, and in some years don’t even add a ring of growth. This slow growth makes their wood very dense and resistant to insects, fungi, rot, and erosion. Vegetation is very sparse, limiting the role of fire. Bristlecone pine seeds are occassionally cached by birds at lower elevations. Bristlecone pines grow more rapidly in more “favorable” environments at lower elevations. They do not achieve their legendary age or fascinating twisted shapes.

While bristlecone pines are the longest-living tree, scientists debate what is truly the oldest living thing. The creosote bush that grows in the Mojave Desert may be older. The cresote achieves its age by “cloning” new bushes from its root system. Yet bristlecone pines surely deserve our respect for not only surviving harsh conditions, but thriving in harsh conditions.

In this forest grows the oldest living non-clonal tree, Methuselah, at over 4,600 years of age. This tree was sprouting at the dawn of civilization, when city-states were forming in Mesopotamia and writing was first being developed.

It seems the oldest and wisest of us have survived so long, not in spite of, but because of the harshest of challenges.  It reminds me of the theme of the Free Cascadia Camp Max participated in: the journey of the salmon. In the words of the organizers:

Salmon spawn in the pure headwaters of creeks and streams, and then transform their entire physiological system, morphing from freshwater fish into saltwater fish. In their new forms, they delve deep into the mysterious cold waters of the ocean, sometimes traveling tens of thousands of miles before hearing the call to come Home again.

Their return restores fertility to the land that would otherwise be lost downstream forever, and in this way, they nourish the entire watershed to which they return. The way to finding Home lies within their ability to listen to something hidden within their DNA and their psyches, which leads them to the ancestral home-waters of their lineage.

But the life-way of the salmon and the Salmon People has been brutalized by the effects of colonization and genocide.

Salmon populations struggle to survive in polluted, warm waters, with many of Empire’s tools creating serious challenges to the successful completion of their journey Home.

In many ways, the link between the people of the land, the fish, and the ecosystem at large have been broken.

And all the people suffer from the dehumanizing and earth-alienating effects of historical and continued colonization.

Now is the time to rewild ourselves, to remember our inherent indigenous relationship to land and place, and to dedicate our lives to right relationship to the Web of Life.

We, like the salmon and the bristlecone, in order to survive in a quickly changing climate due to our own careless expansion, have to be willing and ready to undergo painful transformations and arduous conditions of being.

spence here! with a twist of fate, we were to deliver max to new mexico. i was excited to get a preview of my soon-to-be mountain desert home, as well as a glimpse of the territory we would be hiking through in california. our first stop to pick up max in ashland was pretty fun.  i wish i hadn’t drank 4 cups of coffee and then waited to eat, as i apologized to everyone for being crabby and hungry.  but ashland is beautiful.  sunny and warm but still lush.  the town is quaint.  we saw renaissance era singers in full renaissance garb, perhaps practicing for the biggest renaissance festivial in the united states, held every year there. coming from holly, michigan, which also boasts a champion renaissance festival, i am curious to go back and witness said magnificence in ashland.  how big are their turkey drumsticks?

we continued on to washoe lake state park, located alongside lake tahoe, on its eastern flank.  because of the significant hills and buttes, however, we didn’t actually see lake tahoe, and washoe lake was less impressive. it was still my first taste of the high desert. i loved the dry air and cool evenings.  i also love coyotes. in the morning we cruised on to see mono lake.  i really loved the sun-baked hills and tufas. the salty lake was clear and smelled like the ocean.  there were sea gulls! it seemed like a mirage at first, and something one would love to splash into in the middle of the desert. but as we came to the water’s edge, it was obvious that it was more like a sea, and less like a pleasure lake. brine shrimp and flies and a clay-type mineral sandy shore. i was impressed and saddened. the story of los angeles diverting the tributaries is depressing. i feel like water sources and drought have been on my mind all summer, as most of the united states is undergoing another terrible year. (think peanut crops in texas, 50% snow for california, illinois loosing most crops of corn and soy, etc.) this is  something people from orgeon (and michigan) typically don’t worry or think much about in the same way as in other places. water is and has been and probably will continue to flow all around us, as well as falling on us–rain, snow, sleet, ice–with moss, mud, mold and moisture everywhere.  the whole reason i ended up going on this trip in the first place is because oregon received a late snow in april. however, the rest of the country is thinking about it, and suffering–each year  getting worse.  now i’m thinking more about it and how my ways of living impact other places and beings.  how can we be excited about the future when so much of our resources are taken for granted, spoiled, exploited, trashed. i want to be more positive and talk about the fantastical things that humans are trying to do, and good-hearted-ness i believe our species possesses, but sometimes when faced with a huge on-going environmental disaster, i forget the good.

i was reminded of one such good citizen however, the ranger at the ancient bristlecone pine forest.  we drove up and up that day, from mono lake, through hillsides, cliffs, dry pinon pines, sage, rocks, dust and heat! i was, of course, grumpy and worried about overheating the brakes and the engine of the van simultaneously, but when else would we be able to see the oldest tress in the world! the creature of that land did not disappoint! we arrived at the visitors center and met our fair ranger.  this woman had been a ranger there forever.  you could tell, as she explained all her favorite paths and individual trees to each visitor, over and over again, with increasing excitement! equally as exciting–max bought a cool souvenir hat, and we took many pictures. there was a plethora of information on the scientific method of dating the trees, based on the analysis of patterns of tree-rings, called dendrochronology.

i’ve been more inspired to think about the sciences lately because of our journey. i have been thinking about the adventures i took with my family to desert places, such as flaming gorge, dinosaur national monument and craters of the moon.  where has my curiosity about the world been hiding all these years? probably where its been for most people after a certain age, under a pile of bills. i’m starting to get it back!

2 thoughts on “Mono Lake and the Oldest Trees in the World

  1. I just love reading about your adventures! Hugs to you both. It’s so inspiring to hear about the fun, the challages, and the lessons you are learning. The pictures are beauitful too.


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