The Curse of the Methuselah Tree

2009, Nature  -   13 Comments

In the arid and inhospitable California desert stands a bristlecone pine tree with the mythical name of Methuselah. At nearly 5,000 years of age, it had long been thought to be the oldest living organism on our planet. Pre-dating the construction of the pyramids and the birth of Christ, the tree is a marvel of resilience and survival. "The Curse of the Methuselah Tree" attempts to deconstruct its long and complex history.

The most unique aspect of the film is its point of view. Much of the narration consists of sumptuous poetry provided by Roger McGough. Assuming the role of the tree, this lyrical inner monologue deepens our sense of empathy and engagement with the scope of events detailed in the film.

For much of its life span, the mysteries of this extraordinary tree eluded us. It wasn't until Edmund Schulman, a pioneer in tree aging, first discovered Methuselah in the 1950s that the scientific community began to take notice. Studying the endless layers of inner rings housed under its bark, Schulman was able to assemble a detailed account of the tree's rich and eventful existence.

These rings convey stories of calamitous weather events, civilizations come and gone, and nuclear tests that set the desert ablaze with furious plumes of fire and diseased smoke. The film reenacts many of these events in visceral detail, including the emergence of ancient Indians to the region, the arrival of white immigrants soon after, and the actions of industry that choked the desert of much of its resources.

When the seedlings of the tree's bristlecones were examined in a lab, they showed no signs of deterioration. From outside appearances, the tree might strike spectators as nothing more than a weakened and twisted mass. But upon closer inspection, it's as vital and robust as the day it was born.

"The Curse of the Methuselah Tree" is an impressive and multi-layered work. The history of this mystical tree reflects much of our own history in a manner that sets it apart from other documentaries that cover similar events. The film's conclusion is equally distinct as it delivers an unexpectedly vivid and harrowing environmental statement.

Directed by: Ian Duncan
Ratings: 8.14/10from 44 users.

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13 Comments / User Reviews

  1. Frances

    loved this film, the poetry was better than music to my ears !

  2. Howard

    The most beautiful film I've ever seen.

  3. Paul R

    An absolutely brilliant documentary, narrated both *as* the tree and *to* the tree.

  4. Fred Flintstone

    Very enlighten film! Only man can kill something nearly 5000 years old... Much like what they've done with our country! Extraordinary video!

  5. Adam

    What about the Quaking pines of Aspen?

    1. Barr

      The pines groves are thought to be about 80 to 85 thousand years old but no single tree is anywhere near that age

  6. Heidi Bresilge

    Curiosity is innate in humans, but I wish that the beautiful mysteries on our Earth would remain secret and hidden. Everywhere people go, there is destruction.

  7. User1

    @treeoflife - Old Tjikko is recognized as the oldest living Picea abies and the third oldest known clonal tree.

    @Missy - The root system of Pando, at an estimated 80,000 years old, is among the oldest known living organisms.

    @TDF, thanks for posting this film! I thoroughly enjoyed this. I always had plans to one day camp in this area for a few days to get a feel of what these trees endure. I got a feeling their biggest threat is man.


  8. Deke

    It depends on your interpretation of the term 'tree'. Pando and Old Tjikko are 'clonal' trees. Their root systems are ancient, but their stems die off and new ones emerge. The Methuselah Tree's trunk has withstood the elements for millennia, rather than regenerating.

    That's impressive to me.

  9. ellie

    This is the most amazing information I've seen about ancient trees! Enjoy!

  10. GunnarInLA

    ...then I want to know more about Old Tjikko...

  11. Missy

    Pando is a clonal aspen tree in Utah that is estimated to be 80,000 yrs old ...

  12. treeoflife

    Old Tjikko is the oldest tree in the world, almost double the age of Methuselah.