The “Longevity Under Adversity” of the Bristlecone Pine “Is a Metaphorical Dose of Qualified Hope in an Unstable World”

(p. C9) . . ., trees seem to grow on a timescale humans can comprehend. A seed planted by a child will be largely mature when she is—and will likewise get thicker and wrinklier as it ages. The tree, however, might long outlive her; there’s a reason we use the shape of a tree to chart the chain of human generations.

This intertwining of biology and chronology is the subject of Jared Farmer’s rich but overstuffed “Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees.”

. . .

Mr. Farmer, raised in Utah, is partial to the Great Basin of the American West, cradle of the oldest living things securely dated: gnarled specimens of bristlecone pine. The coronation of bristlecones in the 1950s followed a few decades of scientific progress. Counting rings had long been the main method of tree dating, one that held an intuitive power even beyond the laboratory. Slices of big trunks marked with purportedly significant dates had become popular exhibits, a way to make time tangible. Scientists at the University of Arizona perfected the trick of combining multiple samples and lining up shared clumps of thick and thin rings—caused by year-to-year variation in climate—to extend the chronology beyond the span of a single specimen.

Using this technique, the pioneering dendrochronologist Edmund Schulman pegged one bristlecone at more than 4,500 years old, announcing his discovery in a National Geographic article whose publication he didn’t live to see. Mr. Farmer chronicles Schulman’s career in novelistic close-third-person narration—one more idiosyncrasy in this fascinating farrago of a book—lingering on Schulman’s coinage “longevity under adversity.” For Schulman, the phrase was a tribute to the bristlecone’s ability to endure extreme conditions through partial death; for Mr. Farmer, it is a metaphorical dose of qualified hope in an unstable world.

For the full review, see:

Timothy Farrington. “Time Made Tangible.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 2, 2022, and has the title “‘Elderflora’ Review: Ancient Trees Grow Among Us.”)

The book under review is:

Farmer, Jared. Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees. New York: Basic Books, 2022.

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