The Curse of the Methuselah Tree

The Curse of the Methuselah Tree

2009, Nature  -   21 Comments
Ratings: 8.15/10 from 66 users.

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

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21 Comments / User Reviews

  1. Beth Robarts

    The tree told of centuries of life that it has endured. I look at old trees and think "If only you could talk, the stories you could tell would be amazing!" The tree was given a human aspect to tell its story, nothing demonic about it. It was a way of telling in poetry the life of a tree nearly 4700 years old

  2. Pachacouti

    Just thought I'd point out: Current living Seqoia tree's have been 'alive' for 10.000 years. Yeah, scoff, fools. Then I'll point out that current Pinus Longavious have lived for in excess of 27.000 years. These tree's are alive today, proof before your eye's available to touch, count the ring's of those cut down, man, people even dug a hole through a few just to make a road through them!

  3. me

    I really wish this had never been made - this film. I read that someone sought out to cut down a famous bristle cone, simply due to the fact they knew it existed. They succeeded. Maybe it's better to stop educating the people. I fear they don't deserve it. The rest of the ecosystem certainly doesn't.

  4. Jair52

    New Age film. Referring to a tree as "you" instead of "it" bestows sentience on a form of life that we all know has no will, except if you are a new ager. Christians know that demons can speak from other forms of life that would not speak otherwise, an this is the case here, the producer attaches willingness to a tree.

    1. me

      "bestows sentience on a form of life that we all know has no will, except if you are a new ager." You couldn't be more wrong, and less-travelled. less worldly. I pity you. I pity our little blue dust speck. I pity our progeny. I apologize to the rest of the universe for people with your perspective.

    2. Beth Robarts

      Nothing demonic happened in this story. The you attributed to the tree was just a simpler way of telling a story. If you see demons there ..... well I am sorry for you.

  5. SA Graver

    WOW. amazingly interesting documentary. Also very saddening when Don Curry (shown at 44:35 in the video) talks about cutting down the oldest tree. He does not seem to have any remorse for doing so in his interview. He even appears to just laugh it off. I guess it was worth it to him for the scientific glory of discovering a tree older than Schulman's. Curry appears to be in his late 50's. The graduate work he discusses most likely was done in his mid to late 20's. So this must have been approx 35 years before the making of this documentary. That puts his expedition in the early 70's when he cut down the tree. At 48 minutes into the doc they show the slab he removed being displayed in a casino. I wonder if the footage shown in the casino was taken at the time this documentary was produced or if it is file footage from the late 70's when it was a newer display. The reason I wonder is... at 48:07 they show a man exhaling smoke from a cigarette in the casino and, to me, that guy sure looks a lot like Wayne Nelson (lead singer and bass player on the song Night Owls) from Little River Band. LOL The time line fits perfectly for the age of the man shown, and LRB's popular period, when Wayne may have been spending time in casinos due to LRB's success.. Funny, the little things people pick up in videos.

  6. Frances

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

  7. Howard

    The most beautiful film I've ever seen.

  8. Paul R

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

  9. 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!

  10. 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

  11. 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.

  12. 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.


  13. 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.

  14. ellie

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

  15. GunnarInLA

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

  16. Missy

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

  17. treeoflife

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

    1. lucie

      that's so cool!