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One Man’s Journey To Find The Oldest Tree On Earth

I’ve always had a fierce gratitude for nature, wildlife, and landscape photography. It’s raw, sensory, and can effortlessly deliver the viewer to far off destinations that we’ve only dreamed of identifying with the naked eye. Which is why when National Geographic published, award-winning photographer Larry Beard captured one of the world’s oldest trees— the bristlecone pine— we were eager to hear about his quest.

The story goes that the world’s oldest tree, an Acacia with roots that spread 118 feet below the surface of the Saharan desert, was killed by a drunk driver in 1973. The ranks would have fallen to a tree called Prometheus, a bristlecone pine tree located in the White Mountains of California and Nevada, but an overzealous scientist cut it down in ’64. This left Methuselah, a bristlecone pine, also found in the White Mountains, to be the oldest living tree. Just how old is it? Approximately 5,000 breathtaking years. 

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Beard first spotted a picture of the bristlecone pine five years ago. “I like the way the tree was sort of evil and demented looking as the trunk twisted. I knew I wanted to photograph it so about six months before I went up to the White Mountains [in Inyo County,] I began researching.”

“I called local rangers, known for being cautious to divulge where the Methuselah is, but they only revealed that there were two routes and plenty of trees to choose from. None of which are as old or photogenic as the Methuselah,” Beard explained. “There used to be a sign, but they took it down because everyone wanted to take a little piece of the iconic tree with them. Today it’s fairly hush hush and with that, there’s no way of me really knowing if the tree I photographed is actually ‘it’,” he told me as a myriad of people moved around us inside a Mexican restaurant in Laguna Beach.

“When I looked down l thought I saw it below– I had almost given up hope. To see it in person after wanting to shoot it for a couple of years was like finding gold…”

Determined to find more information before embarking on his journey, Beard scoured the internet for hours. “Someone kind of slipped and said ‘Schulman Grove’,” he told me somewhat covertly. “I continued to find clues but none of them showed me where the specific tree was. I decided to drive up with a friend during Milky Way season, which starts in March. The year before the park was closed until April or May because of snow, but in 2015 we got lucky.

“What happens is the Milky Way will go around the Earth like this [Beard moves his hands above head to form an arc] and the earlier in the season, the lower it is on the horizon. I wanted to see it going over the tree and in March, which happens just before the sunrise at four in the morning.”

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Beard charged through the mountains for hours, looking around every corner for the Methuselah. “I had no idea if it was right off the trail or 50 yards off the trail. I billygoated pretty far up and when I looked down l thought I saw it below. It happened to be it. I had almost given up hope. I was so elated that we even found it and to see it in person after wanting to shoot it for a couple of years was like finding gold,” he told me enthusiastically.

Having found the tree of his quest, Beard planned out his shots, taking inventory of the shale rock and steep drop-off directly beside the pine before heading back to his car. “We left to get some shuteye at an old school hotel in Lone Pine, where John Wayne used to stay at when he was making all the Western movies in a place they call Alabama Hills, which is just down the street from the White Mountains.”

Beard stayed in the John Wayne suite and one night at 2 AM, layered up for the 20-degree weather and began to hike with 60 pounds of photo equipment. Somewhat out of breath from the 11,000-foot altitude, he arrived once again.

“You have an hour to capture this phenomenon, which you think is plenty of time, but you kind of get lost in time when you’re shooting at night. Especially because I was taking long exposure panoramics. I’m used to taking hundreds of photos in the ocean, and while I only captured about 20 photographs on this trip, they were pinpointed. I knew I wanted the photographs from a certain angle– whereas when I’m shooting a wave, there is a lot left up to the ocean.” (Beard’s background is in ocean photography.) 

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Today, 30 percent of Beard’s sales are generated from non-ocean nature photography. “This is absolutely amazing to me, because I know most of our followers found us because of the ocean photography. I love that our customers can buy a wave [that they’re familiar with] and also an image of a bristlecone pine that they’ve never seen before. It’s broadened our market and it’s helping me feel more well-rounded. I started Project 365 (his photography project) just before my dad and brother passed away. Photography kept me from going down a path that I didn’t want to tread. Today, it blows my mind that I get to capture things like the sky lighting up— it’s a great feeling to be apart of and to be able to share with others.”

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