THE METHUSELAH TREE

For the Fall Winter 2020-21 season, PHIPPS turned to one of planet earth’s most pressing concerns: the conservation and protection of forests and woodlands from all manner of destructive forces. Musing on the mystic energy and rejuvenating ecological properties of trees, the collection celebrates the brotherhood of their worldly guardians- whilst continuing PHIPPS’ tradition of educational prints and motifs.


One print in particular has a very special history to it- this sweater and trouser (right) are covered with regular, contrasting, twisting shapes. If you look closely, you can distinguish the silhouette of a tree. This tree is none other than the oldest living thing in the world: the Methuselah Tree.
Named after the eponymous biblical character, Methuselah, who has survived in legend and tradition as the longest-lived human, the tree has a history which reaches as far back as Ancient Egypt. Though not as visually striking as its distant cousins like the Redwood or the Sequoia, Methuselah is awe-inspiring for other reasons- it was built to last. Its age is not a unique mutation, but instead characteristic of its family: Bristlecone pines, or ‘Pinus longaeva’ are remarkably resilient.


Bristlecone pines are only found in the White Mountains of North-Eastern California, where the unforgiving climate means little else can survive. They adapted to the arid climate by retaining water within their needles, allowing a single set to last up to 40 years. Their bark is so dense, mountain-pine beetles and other bugs cannot penetrate it. And, at 3,000 m above sea level, with little food or water, they continue to grow- albeit excruciatingly slowly. The oldest known among them, Methuselah is only 8 meters tall.

It was first discovered by dendrologist Edmumd Schulman in 1957, who incidentally chose the lone-standing tree as the subject of his research. Using a method known as tree coring (which is not harmful to trees), Schulman extracted a small sample from the trunk in order to determine its properties and age. He was astounded to find it was over 4,700 years old.
Hidden within each ring of the trunk was a record of exceptional length and accuracy- Methuselah could actually be used to trace climate variations over time. As a result, Schulman is credited with establishing the most precise method to using trees as dating instruments. The tree can also be used to compare and check other dating systems.


Alex Ross, a writer and music specialist who has researched the Britslecone, illustrated the extent of the trees’ impact on geology:


“Minute changes in the tree-ring record make bristlecones an exceptionally useful source of data about changing conditions on earth. When rains are heavier than normal, the rings widen. When volcanic eruptions cause global cooling, frost rings make the anomaly visible. The precision of these records means that bristlecones have periodically butted into other disciplines: geology, archeology, climatology. In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the trees contributed to the upending of the canonical theory that Bronze Age civilization had spread westward from Egypt and the Near East.”
As a tribute to his life’s work spent researching Bristlecone Pines, Schulman wrote a major article in National Geographic- but his efforts went awry. The piece drew thousands of tourists and academics alike to the mountains, some going as far as breaking off pieces of Methuselah as keepsakes.


One of Schulman’s readers, budding geologist Donald Currey, was also inspired to see the Bristlecone Forest for himself. Just like his predecessor, Currey happened upon a particularly barren specimen, and attempted to core it, unsuccessfully. As its bark was too thick to pierce with his instrument, he cut it down, and brought a cross section back to his motel room to inspect it. As he counted the rings, he discovered it was almost 5,000 years old- he had unknowingly cut down a tree even older than Methuselah.


Although the discovery left Currey devastated, it did not go to waste- it contributed to the increasingly accurate climate record of the Western Hemisphere. The tree in question, named Prometheus, is now on display near its original site. All is not lost, as it is very likely trees even older than this one have not yet been discovered.


Finally, before Schulman’s untimely death, he found that the genetic material contained within Methuselah’s seeds was perfectly preserved- it showed no signs of deterioration, unlike human cells, which are programmed to die. This means that, theoretically, Methuselah could live forever. An extraordinary example of plant consciousness and resilience, the Methuselah could outlive humanity.