I am looking at a very thick twisted trunk, rising to medium height, at which point appears a stumpy canopy of spiky needles. It’s a tree, but a very special one. Ron Simonson, a park ranger explains. “It’s a bristlecone pine, and it’s been given the name, Methuselah”. I ask the obvious question, and Ron replies, “Because like Methuselah from the bible, this tree is very old, one of the oldest living things on Earth in fact.” I ask the next obvious question, and Ron replies, “Basically Methuselah has existed throughout virtually all of recorded human history.” I look again at this quiet and unassuming tree, beginning to realise it is worthy of great respect.
Being in a cold climate, facing limited summer seasons, rooted in nutrient poor and dry soil, and subject to high winds and withering winters, bristlecone pines mature very slowly indeed. Yet mature they do, as with all pines becoming fractionally thicker every year as another growth ring is added to their truck. By counting these, we can accurately state that, as of 2011, Methuselah was4,842 years old, meaning that it sprouted as a seedling in 2832 BC, centuries before the ancient Egyptians began building their pyramids. And that’s just one fascinating fact about that well-known species of tree – the pine.
Pines trees are native to most of the Northern Hemisphere. Several species have adapted to the harsh conditions of high elevations and latitudes, including Methuselah himself, growing among the peaks of the White Mountains of Northern California.
Pines can be small, such as the Siberian Dwarf Pine, or huge, such as the Ponderosa Pine in the wilds of Oregon, and there are over 100 varieties in all. They have been introduced in to the more temperate portions of the Southern Hemisphere, where they are now grown widely, becoming a familiar feature in parks and gardens. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that almost everyone knows pines.
These trees certainly have many telltale characteristics. They are evergreen, usually with needle-like foliage and a sharp pleasant ‘pine smell. They are often large and imposing, with thick scaly bark, and always produce their signature pine cones. These formations are certainly not simple. They can be male (small, inconspicuous, and shedding pollen) or female (large, woody, and containing seeds), even when appearing on the same tree. They have numerous scales arranged in a spiral, with seeds (on the female) tucked within. As the cone opens, the seeds eventually fall out, mostly to be dispersed by the wind, or sometimes by birds. In some varieties, the cones remain closed until their binding resin is melted by forest fires.
This last fact – the need for wildfires for regeneration – is another fascinating aspect of many pine species. In fire-prone areas, it can result in extensive stands of pines, a good example being in ‘pine barrens’. These are eco-regions of sandy nutrient-poor soil dominated by pines, since the frequency of natural (usually lightning-induced) fires weeds out the less fire-tolerant species. It is perhaps sad that modern fire prevention methods have resulted in the decline of many pine species in the wild, and most ancient pine barrens are now being taken over by other forest vegetation.
However, the situation is very different for home and commercial use, which has seen pines become a very common sight. As these trees grow fast, can be planted in dense arrays, and produce attractive and easily moulded wood, they are favourites for commercial plantations. The wood is fragrant, but prone to decay, so it is most suitable for indoor or dry carpentry, rather than outdoors, where more durable varieties are necessary. As for other uses of pines, their branches are valued as Christmas trees, and their wood is also pulped in factories for paper and chipboard production. Pine resin is a byproduct, and this is collected for distillation into turpentine, an important industrial solvent.
In a more homely sense, perhaps what people most like are the cones, the largest of which are regularly used by children and craft enthusiasts. With the widespread distribution of pines across the Northern Hemisphere, cones form part of the many traditional cultures there, where they are used for decorative purposes, fire starters, bird feeders, or just intriguing natural playthings for young children. Many people lament that modern manufactured toys in the more affluent of these countries have displaced cones, although some Nordic communities still teach traditional ‘cone-craft’ in high schools.
For some reason, I always come back to Methuselah. Ron tells me a story. In 1964, a student was taking a coring sample from another bristlecone pine in the area. His coring toll broke, so the tree was cut down to allow dating by an examination of a cross-section of its trunk. Upon doing this, to the astonishment of all, 4,844 rings were counted, signifying that the tree was even older than Methuselah. Ron smiles wryly at the thought. ‘We deliberately killed the oldest life on Earth. That’s one reason why we keep the location of Methuselah a secret. This tree is precious, and must be kept free from all human interference.’
Complete the sentences. Choose NO MORE THAN TWO WORDS from the passage for each answer.
Every year, pine trees gain another (1)……………………
The pyramids were built hundreds of years after (2)…………………
Typical of all pines are their (3)………………..
The wood from pines is not very (4)……………………
Do the following statements agree with the information given in Reading Passage One? Write
TRUE if the statement agrees with the information
FALSE if the statement contradicts the information
NOT GIVEN If there is no information on this
5. Ponderosa pines are the largest.
6. Pines are familiar to most people.
7. Birds usually spread pine seeds.
8. Lightning storms benefit pine barrens.
Choose THREE answers from the list, and write the correct letter, A-F, next to the questions.
Which THREE groups of people, A-F, particularly like pine trees?
A plantation owners
B outdoor carpenters
C people interested in craft
D certain native communities
E factory owners
F users of turpentine
Choose the correct letter, A, B, C, or D.
12. Pine cones are
C mostly the same size.
D often used as toys in affluent countries.
13. Methuselah is
A 4,842 years old.
B the oldest tree ever.
C visited by tourists.
D not subject to much sunshine.