World’s Oldest Living Memories. Of Bristlecones and the First Beggar

methusalah treeIt was with conflicting emotions of fear and pride in her agility and balance that we watched our eight year old granddaughter stretched out horizontally on a branch of a huge Live Oak tree. We were hiking with the family in the Sunol Wilderness Preserve east of Fremont California, and had stopped and to cool ourselves at a place where a creek ran close to the trail. Our beaming young adventurer evoked the easy grace and repose of a panther … alert, watchful and confident.

“How old do you think this tree is Aba?”  Raina called down from her lofty perch.

“I’m going to guess about 200 years old,” my wife Liz called up.

A few minutes later, she clambered down, as easily as she went up, and asked her next question.

“How old is the oldest tree in the world Abo?” (Aba and Abo are her monikers for Abuela and Abuelo)

“Probably about 4000 years. It’s a bristlecone pine tree here in California.” I was pleased to take my turn at being the chosen adult fount of knowledge and wisdom. In that moment I was reminded that being in the presence of one of these ancient trees remained very high on my list of wild places that I’ve hoped to experience in my increasingly limited human life span.

It turns out that my estimate was short by at least 500 years and, and as research continues to refine the technology of tree ring dating, new candidates for the earths oldest tree are likely to be discovered.  The current record holder, The Methuselah Tree, sent it’s first shoot up soon after the completion of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Tree rings it turns out are incredible repositories of detailed and amazingly accurate records of climate change over thousands of years. They are helping to refine archeological timelines, and to show how trees from one end of the world to the other provide congruent evidence of major climate disruptions such as major volcanic eruptions and their connection to the very rise and fall of civilizations.

Speaking of the possible rise and fall of ours and future civilizations, take this as good news or bad news as you will, but it seems likely that our Bristlecone plant elders will outlast human tenure on our blue but increasingly hot planet. 

My sister recently sent us a copy of The Hidden Life of Tree: What They Feel, How They Communicate-Discoveries from a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben.

Wohlleben suggests that we need to broaden our ideas about plant consciousness, as research increasingly suggests numerous and previous undiscovered ways that trees communicate with each other, responding both to general threats and needs of individual members of their community who may be struggling.

With that paradigm shaking thought in mind, one wonders what the Methuselah, Prometheus, and their Bristlecone brethren might tells us about what they “remember” of the times they have lived through.

33500Thinking about ‘ancient memory’ brings me to a story inside a larger story inside an even larger story. It’s the Story of the Seven Beggars by Rabbi Nachman of Braslav. The story of the first beggar, the blind beggar, reveals that he is not really blind at all, but is one that all earthly time does not touch. He reveals that,“I am very old and still quite young, and I have not yet begun to live.”

He then tells a story about a group of shipwrecked souls who wash up on an island and pass an evening by proposing a kind of story telling contest. Each must tell of the earliest memory that they can recall.  The honor of responding first went to the oldest of the company.

Here in turn from oldest to youngest were their earliest memories.  (Quoting Martin Buber’s translation here)

“I remember the day when one broke the apple from the branch.

“ But I still think of the time when the light burned.”

“ I can recall the day when the fruit began to form.”

“ But my thoughts reach unto the hour when the seed fell in the flower-cup!”

“And to me is still present how the flavor of the fruit entered into the seed.”

“And I still have within me, how the shape of the fruit joined with the bud.”

“But I, who at the time was still a boy,” replied the beggar, “was also with them. And I said to them.  I recollect all these occurrences and I recollect nothing at all.”

The company were all greatly astonished that the youngest had the earliest memory and the child knew of the most ancient happening.

Rabbi Nachman’s tales are layered with meanings within meanings, and various interpretations of that exchange are fascinating to ponder. This particular passage is often said to be a reflection on the stages of human development. No wonder then that I’ve been grappling with this tale for more than 20 years and have only occasionaly ventured to tell small snippets.   

One story inevitably leads to another. An anecdote that seems linked to the First Beggars’ tale is the one that is told the four year old sister who questions the new baby.  “Tell me what God is like… I’m beginning to forget.”

It is said that most people’s earliest memories are from around age three and a half.  Yet I feel sure that I remember looking up from what must have been a baby carriage, to see my maternal grandmother kvelling over me, and a feeling of being bathed in a shower of love. That must have been close to the time that “the apple was broken from the branch.”

Over the course of several days I once interviewed my then 87 year old Alaskan friend Poopdeck and asked him about his oldest memory from his childhood in Montana.  As he recalled, he was three or four and navigated a toy wheelbarrow down to the corner where a man had a popcorn stand and asked for a fill-up.

I encourage you to share your first memory in the comment section here.  Perhaps like the first beggar someone will remember all the way back to the primordial beginning before the beginning!

bristeclone trail headA month after that Sunol hike with the family, we spent a week telling stories in Las Vegas schools. One afternoon we drove out of the heat and frenetic buzz of the city and 35 miles northwest up the road to Mount Charleston and into the Spring Mountain National Recreation Area.  By the time we reached about 10,000 feet, the temperature had dropped almost 25 degrees.  A stop at the visitor center to check out maps left us delighted to find that among the many paths we could follow, there was a Bristlecone Pine Trail!  Our choice was easy!

The trees along this trail don’t match Methuselah or it’s neighbors in the White Mountains of California for their antiquity, the oldest being a mere 3000 years old. But it was a beautiful day in the here and now and the perfect place to “find ourselves in the trees, and find the trees in ourselves.”

I live but a short walk to the Middle Rio Grande River Bosque, and one of the finest stands of mature cottonwood stands in the region. It’s now time to close here, get up from my lofty writing perch on the couch, and get down to the River.P1150317



  1. This is a comment from Chris Cavanaugh in Toronto

    Time, time, see what’s become of me,” sang the troubadours.

    Thanks, Bob, for these thoughts on trees and time which, in addition to our terrestrial neighbours, includes wonderful celestial imaginings such as the World Tree and the Sefirot – both of which have much to say about time. I’m afraid “earliest memories” were denied me by a childhood filled with much trauma and that left me with no less than ten years of amnesia. Which is, perhaps, one of the powerful motivators in my life to become a storyteller including researching the bejeezus out of the roots of storytelling and what, collectively, we remember (and forget). Thus my earliest memory (apropos of biological time) is of having an almost overwhelming curiosity about the world. Strange it is to be standing on the shores of an amnesiac sea and wanting only to know anything that would feed my starving soul.

    A couple of things do come to mind from what you write. One is a story (sometimes described as being about Maimonides) in which an “ugly, misshapen” bridegroom confesses to his bride that he remembered that, before being born, the angels brought him together with his true love and, seeing that she was cursed with being ugly and misshapen, asked the angels to transfer the affliction to himself. The angels complied and, while ordinarily they would have then touched the soon-to-be-born souls under the nose to induce forgetfulness of what is known before birth, they turned away from the ugliness of the afflicted soul and did not give him the touch. Something that all of us are assured we have been given by the evidence of that angelic touch: the philtrum below our nose. Some things, apparently, we are not allowed to remember (apropos of Nachman’s point about “nothingness” perhaps – see below).

    But i see in this story the difference between mundane time and divine time. We can know and remember the mundane while the divine is known in a different manner than the machineries of memory. Thus the second thing I’m reminded of: John Berger writes beautifully about time in his lovely memoir, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos:

    “With the absence of remorseless time and space, the past becomes lost and falls into nothingness. … God abandons life, to inhabit the eternal domain of death. No longer present within the cycles of time, no longer the hub of these cycles, he becomes an absent, waiting presence. All the calculations underline how long he has already waited or will wait. The proofs of his existence cease to be the morning, the returning season, the newborn; instead they become the “eternity” of heaven and hell and the finality of the last judgement. Man now becomes condemned to time, which is no longer a condition of life and therefore something sacred, but the inhuman principle which spares nothing. Time becomes both a sentence and a punishment.”

    It seems to me that in your stories of ancient trees and your evocation of Rabbi Nachman’s famous story, that you are touching on the same themes as Berger and, of course, Rabbi Nachman: sacred time and historical (or imprisoning?) time. It seems to me that much of the recent literature on trees is filled with wonder and even astonishment and points us towards re-evaluating whether we see trees (and, by extension, all nonhuman nature) as sacred or mundane. I think it no accident that Martin Buber begins his famous work I and Thou by exemplifying his thinking by applying it to a tree: “I consider a tree,” Buber writes in the opening pages.

    Is Nachman, whose stories are recognizably cabalistic, perhaps instructing us in historical/biological memory and that there is value in remembering the roots of our experience but that to remember further back is to be confronted with “nothingness”? For that “nothingness” is a wall between the mundane and divine, the latter not subject to memory as we practice it in life. And thus knowledge of such can be had only through the study of such things as Cabala or whatever mystical tradition one can engage. As well as storytelling, of course!

    But put it all together and might we not see in trees, young and old, a powerful reminder of our own connections – rooted and rhizomatic – with each other in the current time in which we find ourselves, the historical time of which we are a part, and sacred time which permeates all creation?

  2. My earliest memories are well before I was three, but not sure which was first, as I had no real sense of time back then. The memories have no context, but each one is a separate picture, like beads on a string. They didn’t start to fall into a narrative until I was older. I clearly remember being put in a crib and thinking my parents made up night. It was light when I went to bed and light when I got up, so I thought they just made up night to get me to go to bed! I can also remember being under the table and pretending that the legs of the table and chairs were the woods. (Like in Goldilocks and the Three Bears). I remember a pleasant interval of hammering the coffee table with a little wooden hammer and watching a crescent shaped dent appear with every stroke. I remember everything about the yard in Olympia where we moved when I was about 2. The little creek, the buttercups, the foxgloves full of bumble bees (which were right at eye level for me), the way the owls hooted at night and I thought they were ghosts. I remember the night I heard Santa come down the chimney. It woke me up! I remember my grandma’s house in Bremerton Years later I wrote it down in a poem, and my mom looked at me and said, “But you were so little! How could you remember that?” I did, though. Memory with most emotional resonance is my grandma rocking my baby sister and singing to us both. I was then about two, as grandma died after I had just turned three. She had a kitchen filled with light, and a canary singing in the window.

  3. I once was taken to visit the Bristlecone Pine Trees in California. Each one stands like a separate intricate sculpture of root and branch. I had a vivid sense of great age, sentience, and interconnection between them, in spite of the wide spaces between the trees. It seemed proper to sing to them; which I did. I felt an intense response; something like; “This dear little ephemeral being is speaking to us! How kind! What a joy! Thank you!” It was like being blessed by beings of great age and wisdom.

    • I’ve felt this in the redwoods…. When I lived in California I would visit them regularly and it was like each tree was a different friend….. I also have some tree friends in New Jersey in the pine barrens….. Where I live now I used to visit a walnut tree….

  4. One of my earliest memories happened just down the road from your earlier correspondent, that strippling Tim Sheppard. I was born in Bristol and recall the scent of tomatoes as my sister and I visited the greenhouse of a grower in Cromwell Road. My visual memory is of the concrete fish tanks he had in the greenhouse with small goldfish. But often the pungent smell of the green of freshly picked tomatoes jogs that memory. We left Bristol when I was 3 years old.

    • And now my memory is in question – did I forget that you’d been born in Bristol, Richard, or did I never know? But I share your early memories of the smell of tomato plants – my grandfather grew them in his garden in Speedwell, a Bristol suburb that an ancestor of ours apparently owned a large chunk of before he lost it in a card game. That’s a story I’d like to know more of!

  5. Hard to separate out what is a true memory and what I remember from the photos in my mother’s wonderful albums. Here are two early ones that are not from photos – a vague memory of handing something to my little sister, Paulette, when she was stuck in her high chair. I was probably about two and a half or three. More specific memory around the same time – 1943? – out on the front porch of our house, a little brick bungalow, in northwest Detroit, trying to wheel a doll buggy down the stairway the way my mother had taught me. Then scared and crying as a big airplane, probably a bomber from Willow Run airport, flew low overhead.

    • Thanks Judith! I too have wondered if and how some early memories are connected to photos I’ve seen. At three though I definitely have a few strong and clear memories of times when there is no photographic memory. I also wonder now if in this age of ubiquitous digital and social media, the actual physiology of memory may be changing.

  6. A few months ago I spent a day driving round a few villages in Wales, visiting ancient Yew trees. All of them were in churchyards, as is traditional, but they were all far, far older than the churches. In other words, they were sacred sites long before Christianity existed. There was a particular Celtic tribe that went around the region planting sacred Yews.

    The trees I visited were all at least 3500 years old, and one was reckoned to be about 5000 years old. Yews don’t grow with tree rings so they can’t be dated in the same way, but methods are improving. The oldest one looks like two trees next to each other, with one of them having such a vastly wide trunk that another yew is growing out of it a platform in its heart, 8 feet up. Yet DNA shows all of these to be just one tree.

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