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Zen Botany

Bristlecone pines are known for attaining great ages. They are the oldest single organism known. The oldest bristlecone pine in the White Mountains is Methuselah (above)which has a verified age of 4,852 years. It was germinated in 2883 BC, during the periods that the pyramids in Egypt and the Great Circle at Stonehenge were being constructed. They have a very slow metabolism and a mature tree may add only an inch of thickness in a century. Actually, the great majority of the tree is dead. However, the tree can remain viable with only a single shallow root. Even the seeds of the oldest trees have a high germination rate.

Bristlecone pines have adapted to an incredibly challenging growing environment. They grow at altitudes ranging from 9000-1100 ft in, a rocky white dolomite soil which is very alkaline. There are few competitors in these harsh conditions with scarce resources. They protect themselves ins several other ways as well. Their slow growth and dense wood make the tree resistant to insect and fungal diseases and the lack of undergrowth at these conditions limit the potential for severe fire damage. They obviously can withstand severe weather changes including gale force winds. Further, the species is not commercially important, although in the past they were cut down during the gold rush period and also used by the Native Americans at a much earlier time.

It wasn’t until the 1950’s, when the techniques of evaluating and correlating tree rings (den) that the true age of these trees became clear. As the science progressed, a full time line of environmental events was constructed. In the 1960’s, Tree ring analysis of bristlecone pines provided were used needed to check the accuracy of the carbon-14 dating method. This led to a re-examination of earlier carbon dating results. Archeologists found that some artifacts discovered in Europe were 1000 years older than previously thought.

Edmund Schulman who did the pioneering work with these trees remarked: "When research has been carried far enough in these Methuselah pines, perhaps their misshappen and battered stems will give us answers of great beauty." They can be seen residing at several groves such as the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in eastern California or Great Basin National Park in Nevada.

Chuang Tzu writing in a foundational Daoist text in the 4th century BC has a parallel story:

Carpenter Shih went to Ch’I, and when he got to Crooked Shaft, he saw a serrate oak standing by the village shrine. It was broad enough to shelter several thousand oxen and measured a hundred spans around, towering above the hills. The lowest branches were eighty feet from the ground, and a dozen or so of them could have been made into boats. There were so many sightseers that the place looked like a fair, but the carpenter didn’t even glance around and went on his way without stopping. His apprentice stood staring for a long time and then ran after Carpenter Shih and said, “Since I first took up my ax and followed you, Master, I have never seen timber as beautiful as this. But you don’t even bother to look, and go right on without stopping. Why is that?”

“Forget it—say no more!” said the carpenter. “It’s a worthless tree. Make boats out of it and they’d sink; make coffins and they’d rot in no time. Use it for doors and it would sweat sap for pine; use it for posts and the worms would eat them up. It’s not a timber tree—there’s nothing it can be used for. That’s how it got to be so old.

After Carpenter Shih had returned home, the oak tree appeared to him in a dream and said, “What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with those useful trees? The cherry apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs—as soon as their fruit is ripe, they are torn apart and subjected to abuse. Their big limbs are broken off, their little limbs are yanked around. Their utility makes life miserable for them, and they don’t get to finish out the years Heaven gave them, but are cut off in mid-journey. They bring it on themselves—the pulling and tearing of the common mob. And it’s the same way with all other things.

“As for me, I’ve been trying for a long time to be of no use, and now that I’m about ready to die, I’ve finally got it. This is of great use to me. If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large. Moreover, you and I are both of us things. What’s the point of this—things condemning things?” You are a worthless man about to die—how do you know that I’m a worthless tree.

When Carpenter Shih woke up, he reported his dream. His apprentice said, “If it’s so intent on being of no use, what’s it doing there at the village shrine?”

“Shhh! Say no more! It’s only resting there. If we carp and criticize it, it will merely conclude that we don’t understand it. Even if it weren’t at the shrine, do you suppose it would be cut down? It protects itself in a different way from ordinary people. If you try to judge it by conventional standards, you’ll be way off!” (60)

Watson, Burton (trans), Chuang Tzu Basic Writings, Columbia University Press, NY, 1964, Pg 60.

Judging by conventional standards is a key emphasized by Chuang Tzu. The usual conventional standards such as right and wrong, wealth, status, possessions have been brought forward so often that there is no need to add to this discussion. Both tree stories can present their own perspective on conventional standards. Chuang Tzu tree direction is to live out its life just as it is. The tree appreciates its life and the fact that it has the time to do so fully. Certainly, it is not envious of the more ‘productive’ trees that provide fruit or lumber and is keenly aware of the cost to their lives of being useful. The tree is simply being what it is.

It is a reminder to us that we just have to be who we are. It is not necessary or even possible to know who we are to be who we are. Actions which flow directly from the original understanding are both spontaneous and appropriate. This does not preclude direct conscious action. Indeed that is a part, but only a part of who we are. The Methuselah tree also shows the value of just being who it is. Imagine what it might be like to have been on that mountain for 4500 years. From one perspective, it is a silent meditator experiencing the conditions as they came and went. However the nature of the tree is to also be aware of and document these conditions. For thousands of years, this could be viewed as a worthless endeavor. This opinion was of no matter to the tree. Yet its existence contributed in a major way to the understanding of human history by providing the information to allow the accurate calibration of the carbon 14 dating method.

No being can know what its contribution to the universe may be. We can refer to conventional standards and be deliberate about our rational choices. These may or may not work out according to our intents or desires. However, the consequences of the actions arising from who we are cannot be known or judged. The Carpenter sums it up in the last reply: “If you try to judge it by conventional standards, you’ll be way off.”

Some are initially uncomfortable with the statement of ‘not knowing who we are.’ This is simply acknowledgement that our life is more than can be comprehended by our senses. However, the life beyond sensory perception can be directly experienced and manifested. This is the direction of a meditation practice. The depth adds an additional dimension to the experience and activities of daily life.

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