Bristlecone Pines, Good Luck, and ALW

What’s that saying? It’s better to be lucky than good. But being lucky is one thing,  you then have to recognize what you stepped in. I’m not always lucky, but one day on my shoot in California’s White Mountains . . .

I went there because David and Jared Milarch (father and son) had been there several years before to clone the world’s oldest known living thing, a Bristlecone Pine tree. This was what brought them to my attention, and brought the Champion Tree Project (now known as Archangel Ancient Tree Archive) a lot of press. There was no video of Jared and David in action there, but I had interviewed both about the experience, so I knew that their story was going to make it into the film. That meant I needed footage of those trees.

Day 1: The Bristlecone Pine Trees at Schulman Grove

I had spent the first day shooting beautiful old, Bristlecone Pine trees at Schulman Grove. Lots of them. There were few people on the trails. I enjoyed the pristine quality of these places and I was very pleased not to have people getting all up in my business. Still, I inserted myself in a couple of shots just in case I felt, during editing, that there needed to be a human presence.

The filmmaker photographs a Bristlecone Pine tree.
The filmmaker photographs a Bristlecone Pine tree.


The filmmaker caresses a Bristlecone Pine tree.
Day 2: The Bristlecone Pine Trees at Patriarch Grove

On the second day I went to Patriarch Grove. Again, it was unpopulated and again, it was a wonderful day of shooting. But as I was ready to pack it up, a father and son arrived, and I knew right then and there that filming them would be very useful. They would be surrogates for the Milarchs. And perhaps, I thought, they could be more than surrogates.

Father and son in Patriarch Grove

A Life’s Work
is the story about four people doing work they will not complete in their lifetimes. But it’s also everyone’s story, because none of us finish our work in our lifetimes. Here was a father and son outside of my four subjects. I recognized (or hoped) that by including these “ordinary people” in this sequence — they walk on trails up a mountain, take photos of the oldest living things on the planet — the viewer will see in this father and son something of themselves and then make the leap that film is not just about Jill Tarter, Paolo Soleri, Robert Darden, and the Milarchs, but about them, too.

I know that’s a lot to ask of a few shots, but I have other things in mind to help make this connection as the film progresses, and hopefully there will be a cumulative effect. You’ll just have to stay tuned to find out what those other things are.


Bristlecone Pine Trees: A Clip and an Argument Between DP and Editor

The Bristlecone Pine Tree


Excuse Me While I Go Schizo

I came across this shot while editing a sequence on bristlecone pine trees and the Milarch’s successful cloning of the Methuselah tree and I immediately got into an argument with the cinematographer who shot it. The cinematographer in this case being me. (I think I shot maybe 6 of the 110 hours of total footage and I’m probably pleased with about 4 minutes of those 6 hours.)

David the Editor:  Why didn’t you just lay off the zoom button?

David the Cinematographer: Dude! It would have been a super long take. And I thought the movement of the shadow combined with the  zooms would work nicely. Do you like them?

David the Editor: I do, I just wish you had committed. Maybe one slow long zoom in or zoom out.

David the Cinematographer: You editors, you’re always looking at what was missed, what wasn’t shot. You know that if I hadn’t touched the camera you would be telling me, “Why didn’t you zoom in and zoom out? Give me some options? No way can I use such a long take!”

David the Editor: Can’t I have my cake and eat it to.

David the Cinematographer: In this case, no.

And so the argument ended and I went back to editing.


For closer views of these ancient and majestic trees, visit these links:

Prometheus, Older Than Methuselah: A Clip

Bristlecone Pine Trees: The Polaroids


Planting a Bristlecone Pine Tree: Interview with Christine Lofgren

Bristlecone Pine Tree Polaroid

Not too long ago I discovered that one of my Facebook friends, Christine Lofgren, had planted a bristlecone pine tree. I asked her if she’d grant me an email interview and she humored me, so here it is. Thanks, Christine.

I understand you had the privilege of planting a bristlecone pine tree. Can you tell me how that came about? When and where did you plant it?

In the summer of 1993, I was lucky enough to perform my internship for my B.S. degree in parks & recreation management at the Coconino County Fairgrounds located in Fort Tuthill Park in Flagstaff, AZ. Along with my work in the office helping to organize the county fair and learning how to properly pronounce “Coconino” when I answered the phone, my “long-term” project for the summer was to spruce up a run-down nature trail in the park.

While I was first walking the trail to give it the once over, I also decided that putting together a guidebook pointing out the different plants & features along the way would not only be fun & interesting, but would no doubt assure me an “A” for my internship. It was during my research for this guidebook that I learned about the bristlecone pine tree, and was very impressed to discover that they are the oldest living things on the planet, with some thought to be up to 5,000 years old. Later during the summer, I also found out that 1993 was the 65th anniversary of the incorporation of the city of Flagstaff, and I came up with the idea of planting a bristlecone pine tree at the nature trail in commemoration of this date.

What were you thinking and feeling as you planted this thing that could potentially live for thousands of years?

The tree was just a small sapling, and looked just like any normal pine tree would. It seemed very fragile for something with so much potential, and didn’t look anything like the gnarled and twisted older bristlecone pine trees I had seen pictures of. This was the first tree I ever planted, and I have a horrible track record of slowly killing any houseplants I’ve tried to care for, so I was also hoping I wouldn’t do the same with this little guy. I planted “him” (it seemed like a “him” to me by this point) near the end of the trail at the edge of an open meadow, with a picture-perfect view of the San Francisco Peaks in the distance.

After I had planted the tree in his freshly dug hole and wished him luck surviving my black thumb, I was thinking about how maybe hundreds, or even thousands, of years from now, long, long after I’m gone, this little sapling might look like one of those twisted and gnarled pines in the pictures, and might still be here, enjoying the beautiful view. It’s kind of difficult to put into words, but I guess I was feeling the sense of amazement you sometimes get when you can glimpse the big picture and understand how the puzzle pieces of life should fit together. As I’m writing this, I hope that my little guy has made it, and I’m envisioning that beautiful view I hope he’s still enjoying.

When I interviewed Jared Milarch, he said when you see a bristlecone pine, it’s a different “wow factor” than when you see a redwood, for example. Did you find that to be true? What was that “wow factor” for you?

Well, the tree just looked like any little pine sapling would, but, yes, there was a certain “wow” factor in that this small little tree could one day possibly be a strong & mighty tree; it might still be around not just hundreds, but thousands, of years from now, and who knows what it will see in its lifetime? I guess I felt a lot of respect for that little tree, and that the inherent wisdom it contained at this young age already made it far wiser than I would ever be in my lifetime.

Have you been back since you planted?

Unfortunately, no. Now I’m having thoughts of a road trip to Flagstaff with a mission to see if the tree made it and how it might look after all these years.

Did you have a favorite tree as a kid? Do you have a favorite species of tree now?

No, I never had a favorite tree as a kid, and I don’t have any favorite species now. I know it sounds corny, but they are each unique & special in their own way, and each has it’s own important role in the web of life.

Well, now that I’m thinking about it, we did have a tree house when I was a kid, so I especially loved that tree, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what kind of tree it was, except that it wasn’t a pine tree, and definitely not a bristelcone pine tree!

When we first communicated, you mentioned a project you thought you wouldn’t see completed in your lifetime. Can you tell me about that?

I could write a lot about this, but I’ll try and keep it short & sweet, I’m working on helping to end factory farming. I do what I can to educate others, and I’ve been working as an intern (volunteer really) with the Humane Society of the United States’ Farmed Animal Welfare Department, helping out with things like fact-checking papers, etc. I’m not a vegetarian, but the lives the animals on these “farms” live is truly horrific, from the day they are born until the day they die. There are a lot of other very serious concerns stemming from factory farming, including pollution & environmental threats, overuse of antibiotics & growing antibiotic resistance, putting small & healthy farms out of business, and the threat to a safe food supply.

Factory farming is not only extremely inhumane, it’s one of the biggest threats out there that a lot of people don’t seem to be aware of. For instance, a 2006 U.N. report states that livestock production puts out more greenhouse gas emissions that the entire transportation sector (cars, trucks, trains, everything). The list goes on and on, but this is a very complicated issue, with a lot of strong and very wealthy industrial lobbyists. While I do see small improvements in the welfare of these animals happening in my lifetime, I unfortunately don’t see a complete end to factory farming happening until after I’m gone. That thought can be depressing, but does that mean I shouldn’t do what I can and am able to do to help in my lifetime? As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” While the justice will happen after I’m gone, I’m doing what I can in my lifetime to help that arc in its journey towards that goal. (To learn more about Christine’s work, email her at c l o f 1 0 1 [a t } g m a i l { d o t ] c o m )

Here’s a clip of Jared Milarch talking about the oldest of the old.


The awesome Starlee Kine hipped me to this Radiolab story about the Prometheus Tree, which according to the ring count (4,844 rings/years), was older than Methuselah. It starts around 14:50 seconds in, but the first segment is worth a listen as well.

Bristlecone Pine Trees: The Polaroids

Last year around this time I was in the White Mountains of California shooting Bristlecone Pine trees.

Along with my video gear, I lugged my Polaroid SX-70 and took these. As you may be aware, Polaroid went bankrupt and so they stopped producing film, but an organization called the Impossible Project has taken up the cause. The magic that was Polaroid film is not easily reproducible though, and that’s why there is some discoloration and splotchy brown bits.

Still, I like these photo, and I hope you do, too.

For some stills pulled from the video, visit From the Shoot Journal, 08.17.2010

For a clip featuring the trees and Jared Milarch talking about Methuselah, the oldest known living organism in the world, visit Prometheus, Older than Methuselah: A Clip

Milarchs and Reforestation in the News

Yesterday the Associated Press ran a story about the Milarchs efforts to clone the biggest and oldest trees for reforestation projects, and now it’s everywhere. Here it is on the NPR web site.

I thought this might be a good opportunity to revisit a clip from A Life’s Work, so here you go: David Milarch talking about cloning redwoods.


See also:

Here’s a “Trailer,” featuring the Milarchs and the three other subjects of A Life’s Work.

Prometheus, Older than Methuselah, a clip featuring Jared Milarch speaking about Bristlecone Pines and the tragedy of the Prometheus tree.

Ask the Filmmaker: Turning the Tables, a clip where David Milarch explains our relationship to trees.

The Year in Review, Part 1

I took the advice of my friend Jenn Chen and reflected on 2010. Here then, with a focus on A Life’s Work, the year’s accomplishments.

February and March: Worked on the film at The MacDowell Colony.
April: Shot follow-up interview with Robert Darden in Waco, Texas.
June: Footage from A Life’s Work shown at World Science Festival.
July: Shot follow-up interview with Paolo Soleri.
August: Shot Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains, California. Production over!
September: Worked on the film at Blue Mountain Center; A Life’s Work at Independent Film Project.

And then there were the grant proposals submitted, and 111 posts written for the blog and the cajoling of the guest bloggers who wrote 11 awesome posts.

Had you told me at the end of 2009 this was what I was going to get done in 2010, I would have laughed in your general direction.

I recommend this reflection exercise. (Looking back is only half of it, you also look forward. Visit Jenn’s blog, Typecraft, for the whole magilla.) I found it put the past year in perspective and made me realize that I can get a lot done in the coming one.

Prometheus, Older Than Methuselah: A Clip

Bristlecone Pine tree

I became interested in including the Milarchs and Champion Tree Project in A Life’s Work after I read that they had cloned the Methuselah tree, a Bristle Cone Pine that is the oldest known living thing on the planet. In my interview with Jared Milarch, he mentioned a tree that was known to be older than Methuselah. Here’s a snippet of the interview and some recently shot footage of Bristle Cone Pines. The Methuselah tree was not photographed or  videotaped. In fact, its location is a secret known to very people.


Not so coincidentally, shortly after I returned from filming the trees my friend Starlee Kine hipped me to this Radiolab story about the Prometheus Tree, which according to the ring count (4,844 rings/years), was older than Methuselah. It starts around 14:50 seconds in, but the first segment is worth a listen as well.

Shoot Journal 08.18.2010

August 18, 2010 – Inyo National Forest: Patriarch Grove

I had an idea that I’d capture the sunrise, which meant getting out of bed around 3am. But insomnia, exhaustion from the day before, and mostly not having spotted a good sunrise location on the 17th kept me in bed until 7am.

Glutes burned most of the morning, thankfully my back kept it together. Lunched on a rock overlooking Patriarch Grove – tuna from a pouch, almonds, banana, water, same as yesterday. I can’t say it was delicious, but it was satisfying.

Yesterday, early into the trek, I realized I needed to not just shoot interesting details of trees, but treat each tree like a character. Today I’ve taken this further and I’ve decided to name the individual trees when I log the footage. Clawhand. Halfdead. Coney. Gorgon. Skyscraper.

Altitude at  Patriarch Grove is 11,000 feet, and to my amazement, I didn’t get altitude sickness. Labored breathing when I had to walk up hill with the gear, but nothing beyond that.

I was going to pull some stills and create a slideshow for this page, but I decided instead to edit together a little sequence. Look for that in the next day or two.

But there should be images and sound, so I’ll share this. On heavy rotation in my head during this shoot day was All Flowers in Time Bend Toward the Sun, a duet  by Jeff Buckley and Elizabeth Fraser. Oh, Elizabeth Fraser, I don’t understand one word you sing, but what is it about your voice that makes my inner most being quiver? (The video isn’t much to look at; the song rips me to shreds every time.)


Shoot Journal 08.17.2010

August 17, 2010 – Schulman Grove, Inyo National Forest, CA

I did not die on the mountain.

Too busy working to be wowed by the trees. Or maybe I was in a constant state of wow?

Don’t think I worked my body this hard ever. Lots of trees. Four and 1/4 mile trail but backtracked to Methuselah Grove, location of the oldest living tree on the planet. (Not picture here.) Physically strenuous with all the stop-and-go, the rough terrain, the heavy and bulky gear, and mentally strenuous with all the looking and mental framing of shots. Thankfully, it wasn’t 100 degrees, more like 70, but the sun was strong at 10,000 feet.

When I made it back to the car after 10 hours on the desolate trail there was a bottle of warm water and an apple waiting for me. I downed the water. I bit into the apple. It was the most delicious apple I had ever tasted and I savored every bite. The fish and chips I ate at a restaurant in Bishop, however…

Here are some stills pulled from the video.

Next installment:  August 18, 2010 – Inyo National Forest: Patriarch Grove