Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bristlecone Pine

I feel a slight bit of guilt in recycling a blog entry from last year, but then again, since today is Earth Day 2009, I think recycling is entirely appropriate. Last year, I wrote in honor of North America's oldest known living tree, the Methuselah Tree, a bristlecone pine estimated to be near 5,000 years old (not the one pictured, although the picture is of a bristlecone pine). I first heard of the bristlecone pine through a song I heard performed by Jim Salestrom about a decade or so ago. In case you didn't know, Jim--originally from Kearney, Nebraska--formed in the mid-1970s a band called Timberline which had a Top 10 chart hit in 1976 entitled "Timberline," a John Denverish-sounding tune about the beauty of the mountains. After Timberline broke up a few years later--I actually had a former member of the band in an English class of mine in the fall of 1982--Jim became a solo artist. Among his many fine albums is The Messenger, which contains "Bristlecone Pine," which I must say is one of the most sublimely beautiful, which is to say, haunting, songs I've ever heard. The song is available on iTunes, with versions by Michael Johnson, Pat Surface, and Nancy Cook, but I guess I prefer Jim's rendition to theirs.

Way up in the mountains on a high timberline
There's a twisted old tree called the bristlecone pine

The wind there is bitter; it cuts like a knife

It keeps that tree holding on for dear life

But hold on it does, standing its ground
Standing as empires rise and fall down
When Jesus was gathering lambs to his fold
The tree was already a thousand years old

Now the way I have lived there ain't no way to tell
When I die if I'm going to heaven or hell
So when I'm laid to rest it would suit me just fine
To sleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine

And as I would slowly return to this earth
What little this body of mine might be worth
Would soon start to nourish the roots of that tree
And it would partake of the essence of me

And who knows what's found as the centuries turn
A small spark of me might continue to burn
As long as the sun does continue to shine
Down on the limbs of the bristlecone pine

Now the way I have lived there ain't no way to tell
When I die if I'm going to heaven or hell

When I'm laid to rest it would suit me just fine

To sleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine

To sleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine

Music and Lyrics by Hugh Prestwood
© Hugh Prestwood Music

I love the image of the bristlecone pine, an utterly pagan conception of eternity, and the way the singer imagines himself achieving eternal life through his body's nourishing of that astonishingly old, gnarled tree. What I also like about the song is the way it enacts a sort of Nietzschean, pre-Christian, concept of religious thought, of a religion that imagines both the soul and eternity, or eternal life, as a part of a natural process, with the images of eternity found in nature itself.

Scientists have refused to disclose the precise location of California's Methuselah Tree, fearing acts of vandalism. I have no trouble with this policy, primarily because the potential vandals are surely misguided, and not for the obvious reasons: they have imagined their relationship with the tree totally backwards. The point is not to take apart the tree, and hence have a sterile piece of eternity; the point is to partake of the tree's existence, to nourish the tree with one's own body, and achieve eternity thereby.

Today marks the third day this week my wife Becky and I have conducted all of our errands by walking; I intend to walk with her when leaves to teach her class in about an hour. I know our acts don't in themselves amount to much, but it's a litte something to do in honor of Earth Day. That, and acknowledge the world's oldest known living organism.

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