On Friday, I had a front-page article on the story of Prometheus, the 5,000-year-old bristlecone that was chopped down in 1964 in the name of science — and whose memory was resurrected by Los Angeles artist Jeff Weiss.
A number of readers wrote in over the course of the day to ask how and why the tree had been cut down and what the scientific purpose had been. The story is an interesting one.
Prometheus was cut down at the request of Donald Currey, a young scientist doing research on the geology of the area (who has since passed away). Currey wanted to study the tree’s rings in order to better understand the area’s climatological history (a science known as dendrochronology), and with the help of a ranger named Don Cox, he secured permission to remove a specimen.
The pair settled on a specimen known as "WPN-114" in the official government paperwork. The tree reached a height of 17 feet and a circumference of 252 inches. Large portions of it were dead, but a single 11-foot branch was still alive (no small thing given the slow-growing nature of bristlecones, which add just an inch of girth every century).
Cox put the request through to his superiors. And when one of them asked him if the tree had anything that made it worth preserving, Cox replied that it did not. “No one,” he later told the Reno Gazette-Journal, “would have walked more than 100 yards to see it.”
So Prometheus was unceremoniously dispatched by a chainsaw crew paid for by the U.S. Forest Service, which managed the land at the time. (The area the tree inhabited is now part of Great Basin National Park.)
After the tree was cut down, its guts were hauled off to various U.S. universities for further examination. One slab wound up in the lobby of the Hotel Nevada in Ely, where it greeted visitors to the casino (it has since been moved to the city’s convention center). Another resides at the visitor center at Great Basin National Park. Yet another lives at the Tree-Ring Research Lab at the University of Arizona.
It wasn’t until a year after its death that the tragedy of Prometheus’ fate became fully apparent. In 1965, Currey published his findings in the journal Ecology. WPN-114, he noted, had a grand total of 4,844 visible rings, making it roughly 4,900 years old — at least 200 years older than Methuselah, a bristlecone pine that had been the oldest known tree on record.
Since then, scientists have figured that Prometheus was probably older, perhaps up to 5,100 years old, since counting a tree’s rings is more art than science, and since it’s impossible to know if a particular cross-section includes every ring back to a tree’s origins.
Certainly, the tree’s rings have provided valuable information about weather patterns in the area over five millennia, but as scientist Wes Ferguson notes on the University of Arizona website, all of this could have been achieved by coring the tree — not chopping it down.
The short National Park video I’ve embedded provides some wondrous views of the scenery that Prometheus once inhabited — with footage of many living specimens. And this Radiolab report with the story of Prometheus and how its destruction haunted Currey is also quite terrific.
But if you want something really special, check out Weiss’ website, where he has uploaded audio of his entire remembrance ceremony, along with a time-lapse animation of Wheeler Peak, where the tree once stood. (Best viewed in Safari or Firefox.)
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.