Sep 8 2013

Bristlecone Pine and Whose Values Anyway?

SC Bristlecone-03This summer I was privileged to spend a couple of days in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. For me, this is a spiritual place, a place that enhances my connection to God. There is something about being among and photographing trees that are thousands of years old in a place hard to access high on the mountains. There were some people in the Patriarch Grove, but I have never seen this place crowded because the road into the grove is a long, narrow, winding mountain road filled with sharp rocks that threaten tires. It can take up 45 minutes to traverse the 12 miles from the end of paved road to the Patriarch Grove.

Once there, I wandered among the striking trees, feeling honored to be there photographing them. That might seem odd if you have never been there. After all, how can you be honored by trees that don’t think? I felt honored to be in a special place of God’s creation. I stayed until after dark and even played a bit with star photography and the trees.

SC Bristlecone-01These trees live under difficult and challenging conditions. They grow in a soil too harsh for other trees, plus these trees deal with a short growing season high in mountains, severe winter conditions, and low annual rainfall. Bristlecone pine can live with only 10% of their bark left. They grow so slowly in the dry conditions and a very short growing season that their wood becomes extremely dense and resistant to mold, fungi and insects. Bristlecone pine grow in other areas more normally, but here, they handle the conditions quite well.

Now I have heard people say that these trees grow in spite of inhabitable conditions, that they are survivors against the odds. I can’t agree with that. I think that diminishes God’s creation. It implies man’s values rather than God’s values. These conditions may be inhospitable to man, but obviously they are not inhospitable to these amazing trees that hold adaptations for the conditions. Would God feel sorry for these trees growing in “inhospitable conditions”? I don’t think so. They are part of God’s creation, not man’s creation. Oh, those poor trees with only 10% of their bark left! Not really. That’s man’s values. These trees are smartly attuned to the difficult conditions for any other tree.

SC Bristlecone-02It seems to me that we want to attach our values to many things in nature without wondering what is God’s will. The Rim Fire in California near Yosemite is another example. It certainly is troublesome when it threatens people, but on the other hand, it is not going to “destroy” Yosemite, as I have heard news people say (“the Rim Fire threatens to destroy large areas of Yosemite”). We are beginning to understand that fire is actually a part of nature, a part of the world that God made. In some areas, such as Yosemite and its surroundings, fire has always been part of the environment, the ecology, God’s creation. In fact, much of Yosemite is quite unlike what it looked like when the white man first came there and started suppressing fires. Fire in such places is only “bad” from our perspective, not necessarily from God’s. Smokey the Bear came not from God, but from lumber interests that wanted the forests “protected” to protect “their” trees and any potential income they could get from them. In Proverbs 3:5, it says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (NIV) I also like the translation in The Message: “Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure everything out on your own.”

We cannot possibly understand the immensity, the mystery of God, the wisdom of His creation, but then we can trust in God’s wisdom. When things grow in unique places, like the bristlecone pine, that does not mean they are suffering or any better or worse than any other part of God’s creation. They simply are and they are a beautiful part of that creation. When natural events like fires occur, they are disasters only in our eyes, not necessarily in God’s. And I will be a little harsh about people, too. Building a home in an area that burns and then getting upset it burns is kind of counter productive, and then blaming God for not protecting people is a bit odd.

There is an old story that has a number of forms about a man who expects God’s help. In one form, he desperately needs money because he has lost his job and has big medical bills. He prays to win the lottery. The lottery comes and goes – he wins nothing. He tries again, praying more fervently, prostrating himself on the ground. He wins nothing. Really desperate now, he spends all day and night praying non-stop before the next lottery. And again, he wins nothing. He rails against God, “Why have you forsaken me?” God replies, “It would help if you bought a lottery ticket.”

And it helps if we treat nature as part of God’s values, not ours. We cannot expect to do things the way we want to, based on our values, like the man wanting to win the lottery, if we do not follow God’s will and His values.

— Rob

Aug 20 2010

Ancient Life

Ancient bristleconeOne of my favorite places is the Ancient Bristlecone Forest in California in the White Mountains. These are relatively dry mountains inbetween the Sierra Nevada and Death Valley. At altitude (meaning above 10,00 feet) are the ancient bristlecones.

These trees can be thousands of years old. The oldest are estimated to be around 4,000 years old. That just blows me away. When I am in the presence of one of these trees, I understand that it was alive, and probably old, before Christ was born. I understand that, but it is really hard to fully grasp down deep. From our limited human perspective, Christ was born a long time ago. So many things have happened in human and church history since then. Yet no matter what happened, this bristlecone pine went about its business simply living in a very challenging environment.

When most people hear of bristlecone pine, they think of these ancient trees. Yet, in many locations up in the mountains, bristlecone pine grow like most any other pine in forests that look like many other pine forests. There are unique conditions in the ancient bristlecone area. The soil has a lot of a stone called dolomite — this makes the soil filled with some minerals that discourage growth of many plants and slow the growth of the bristlecone. In addition, the soil dries quickly. Even more, these trees are growing at altitudes of 11,000 feet and more, so winter conditions are severe. That keeps other plants out, which would cut wind, and further adds stress to the bristlecones. So they grow slowly, but can be damaged on one side or the other so that side dies, yet the plant keeps growing. Conditions are too difficult for most diseases or rot-causing fungi.

That kind of gives a perspective about God. We always want things to happen quickly (that certainly is true of me!), yet here is one of God’s creations that simply lives seemingly forever. A year or two is nothing to an ancient bristlecone pine. A 50-year-old bristlecone in this area is but a baby.

In Bishop Tutu’s wonderful book, Made for Goodness, he talks about how we often feel we fail or succeed on very limited timeframes. He feels that God may have success for us in mind, but it is on His timeframe, not ours, because He knows more about the world and what happens in it than we will ever know. In that vein, one might look at a broken, half-dead bristlecone and think it has failed to survive in a tough environment. Yet, God created this tree to live in this environment, to be in this environment, so loss of part of the tree does not matter because the tree is also alive and has been for centuries. Perhaps there is a lesson in the bristlecone that time is relative and that our demands for “success” or “failure avoidance” may be way too limited in their timescale.