Artist pays tribute to ancient bristlecone pines |

Artist pays tribute to ancient bristlecone pines

Linda Balough/Summit County Correspondent
Photo by Linda Balough/Special to the Daily

PARK COUNTY – High on the side of one of Colorado’s fourteeners, a grove of ancient bristlecone pine trees leans as if peering over the ridge to watch the lines of traffic streaming over Hoosier Pass far below.

Some of these trees were standing when the Roman emperors moved the center of the empire to Constantinople in about 350 A.D. Others are thought to have been around when Christ was born.

They have battled 100 mile per hour winds that scream across the peaks in winter and basked in the intense sunlight of the cool summer days. They even survived the onslaught of miners seeking strong timbers to shore up the walls of silver mines that penetrate the mountainsides of Mounts Bross and Lincoln.

Somewhere in the middle of the Windy Ridge Scenic Area, an anonymous artist has placed a plaque in honor of the spirits of the trees. Windy Ridge is located in Park County on the side of Mt. Bross. It can be reached by four-wheel drive vehicle from Buckskin Road just off Highway 9 in Alma.

He says that through many trips up the rugged road leading to the grove, the spirits have provided inspiration, always teaching him new things.

“I put (the plaque) up on behalf of the spirits. Not that they can’t speak for themselves; but nowadays, so few people seem to understand what they are trying to say,” said the artist, who requested anonymity.

The plaque is attached to a portion of an ancient tree lying horizontal on the ridge. At first glance, the bristlecone seems to be dead. Like many of its neighbors, the gnarled tree has been bent and broken by time and fierce winds but these rugged sentries of history persevere in unimaginable conditions.

Along the trunk, only broken, barkless limbs reach for the sky and ground. At the very tip of the tree there are thriving green branches sporting the tree’s signature bristly cones that sparkle in the slanting sunlight.

The plaque borrows a quote from the famed naturalist, John Muir.

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches and a thousand tempests and floods, but he cannot save them from fools,” it says.

Fools seem to be the only real threat to the ancient bristlecones.

In one incident, a student was examining one of the trees on Wheeler Peak in Utah and cut it down, thereby destroying the oldest living thing on earth.

Dendrologists – scientists who study tree rings – later discovered that the sacrificed tree, named “Promethius,” was 4,862 years old.

Since a bristlecone can survive with only a small portion of live tissue, the trees often recover from lightning strikes or other injury that would kill other trees.

Even the dead wood from a bristlecone can remain in place at its preferred growing range elevation of just below 11,000 feet without damage from snows, cold or rot, making it invaluable to researchers who are trying to date the life of the trees and making it essential the wood is not taken from the site.

The Windy Ridge plaque’s artist often finds ways to place his works in the middle of a natural setting. He said he likes for people to be able to discover his art in unexpected places.

He asked the exact location of his work not be revealed, to allow each visitor to feel a sense of discovery and reverence for the place. Perhaps the spirits will whisper their messages in the wind as it races through the thousand-year-old branches.

Support Local Journalism