by Laura Cray*
On October 14, James Capshew invited his audience at the Autzen House Center for the Humanities to stop and smell the pine cones—or at least contemplate their place in the human understanding of time. His lecture entitled, “The Fascinations of Age: Bristlecone Pines Between History and Imagination,” explored Capshew’s most recent research into the history of dendrochronology and the lure of the bristle cone pine in the imaginations of scientists and artists alike.
At the core of Capshew’s talk is the tension between scientific examination of the bristle cone pine and the sacred status that they have come to represent as the oldest known living organisms. The bristle cone pine grows only in the remote timberline regions of the great basin in the American South West and some of the oldest specimens are nearing 5,000 years in age. Dating techniques, such as core sampling and cross sectioning, which established the bristle cone pine’s age and which continue to serve as a valuable tool for dating and historical climate analysis, however, are seen by some as invasive. Since the initial dating of the pines in the late 1950s, their age and unique appearance has inspired poetry, song, and art celebrating the trees’ perceived majesty. During the environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s, the trees served as a focal point for activists who rallied to have the trees protected within national parks, and who decried the cutting of the trees for cross section sampling. These ancient pines speak to the human fascination with the old; that is why they are studied by science, that is why they are (further) immortalized in words and art, and it is why they are revered as sacred. Despite this, Capshew challenges us all to consider what it would look if we distanced the bristle cone pines from these anthropocentric, culturally constructed values and understood them instead from an ecocentric, nature centered perspective.
James Capshew is the 2012-2013 Gordon/Horning Visiting Fellow at OSU’s Center for the Humanities, and is Associate Professor in the Department of History & Philosophy of Science at Indiana University.
*Laura Cray is a Ph.D. student in History of Science at Oregon State University.