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“You feel like you are meeting a very important person, perhaps someone from mythology,” writer Darwin Lambert said of old bristlecones. I guess I was sort of a nerd,” said Brunstein, who now works for the United States Geological Survey in Denver.Another writer, Michael Cohen, said the ancient trees have a long-suffering beauty that can come only from the “beauty of suffering long.” For most of the tree’s life, it stood unnoticed on its lonely ridge. The friendly, gray-haired geologist is the one person who knows the locations of the oldest trees in Colorado because he is the one person who has spent decades finding them. than to recover the history of the men who walked beneath them.” But the past century saw the practice make huge leaps.In 1844, a year tribes and trappers in Colorado called “the time of the big snow,” storms dropped so much snow that when it finally melted, thousands of buffalo lay dead on the prairie. The old trees form so many frost rings, Brunstein said, because they live at about 11,400 feet — the tree line, where the slightest temperature dip can form ice in the cells.Brunstein has counted 182 frost rings in cores from the region, which, he said, “makes them one of the best indicators of global climate we have.” The record is so complete that archaeologists have used it to help explain an Aztec curse.After Brunstein found his grove of bristlecones, he borrowed a coring tool from his science teacher at Cheyenne Mountain High School and took samples.They suggested one tree was almost 1,000 years older than any tree found at that point in the Rockies — so old that when he told scientists at the top tree-ring laboratory in the country, the University of Arizona, they initially didn’t believe him.It probably got its start when a gray, jaylike bird called a Clark’s nutcracker hid seeds filched from a nearby pine into a nook on the ridge, then forgot about the stash.Today, the tree’s location is known to fewer than 10 people, who keep the route hidden to protect the ancient pine.
La Marche took several cores back to the lab, where he noticed an odd pattern.
Tree-ring data showed that the “curse” was probably caused by cyclical droughts and cold snaps.
Of the 13 cursed years on record, 10 had below-average tree-ring growth or frost rings that could have caused crop failures.
About the time Brunstein spotted his old trees, the rings of bristlecones proved that radiocarbon dating — the newest, most sophisticated way to measure an object’s age — was inaccurate by at least 1,000 years. To him, the potential of the old pines seemed almost limitless.
The only trick was to translate the trees’ language.
These were frost rings — scars left from years when the freezing weather came too soon and ice formed in the cells, shredding the thin walls.