Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Prometheus Tree: A Study in Anguish

"Where, even when we mean to mend her
we end her
Aftercomers cannot guess the beauty been."
                ---Gerard Manley Hopkins, Binsey Poplars

Driving home from our Bible study group tonight, I caught a repeat broadcast of Radiolab entitled "Oops," originally broadcast June 28, 2010. I came in at the middle of the story of the man who killed the oldest living non-clonal organism, a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine. Locals called the  tree "Prometheus." 

In 1964, Don Curry, a graduate student, was studying climate dynamics using dendrochronological techniques. He was working on Prometheus (or, as he and later scientists called it, WPN-114)  when his Swedish boring tool got stuck and broke. Without the sample, he risked losing funding for his study, so the Forest Service cut the tree down for him. When he got back to his lab, and started counting rings, he had the shock of his life. WPN-114 was at least 4862 years old. (Later calculations put it closer to 5,000 years old. )

To help put this in perspective, Prometheus would have been around to witness:
3000 BC:     The beginning of the Minoan civilization
2655 BC:     The Great Pyramid at Giza is completed
1185 BC      Trojan War
1000 BC      Chinese develop gunpowder
  559 BC      Cyrus becomes king of Persia; builds an empire
  433 BC      Parthenon completed
  323 BC      Alexander the Great dies
 5BC-6 AD  Birth of Jesus
  250 AD      Beginning of Mayan Classic Period
  410 AD      Rome sacked by Visigoths
  632 AD      Muhammad dies
1066 AD      Battle of Hastings
1206 AD      Genghis Khan
1455 AD      Gutenberg invents the printing press
1517 AD      Luther presents his 95 Theses
1776 AD      American colonies successfully rebel
1804 AD      Napoleon crowned emperor
1848 AD      The Communist Manifesto
1903 AD      Orville and Wilbur Wright
1928 AD      Fleming discovers antibiotics
1957 AD      Sputnik, the first man-made satellite
1963 AD     "the Green Revolution"
Imagine what it must have been like for Curry, to simultaneously be the discoverer and executioner of the oldest living organism on earth. The RadioLab announcers pointed out that after this episode, he turned his attention to the salt flats of Lake Bonneville, where there are no trees or any other vegetation. He became a successful and respected academic. However, Curry refused to talk about Prometheus for years afterward.  The pain must have been too great.

1 comment:

Ann said...

I can't imagine. Would that we take to heart this metaphor of how blithely we treat one another without regard to the potential of the eternity bequeathed us by our Creator.