By Meghan Swartz
I asked the park ranger at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest visitor center about the tiny, potted bristlecone pine sapling they had on display, assuming it was planted a few months ago. The pine was only a few inches tall, barely peeking over the pot’s rim. “Oh that?” he replied. “We’ve been growing it for about two years now.” Then he suggested checking out the sapling outside, standing about a foot tall. It had taken thirty years to reach the towering height of twelve inches. Suddenly we understood how these trees could take thousands of years to reach an average height.
We left the visitor center armed with this new information and set out on a four-mile hike to find the trees that had made the forest famous. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, hidden deep within the White Mountains of southeast California, is home to entire groves of the world’s most ancient trees, including the Methuselah Tree. At 4,848 years old, this tree is one of the oldest living organisms in the world, germinating even before the pyramids were built.
A botany professor once visited the forest’s Methuselah Tree, and knowing its age, assumed it lived in ideal growing conditions: somewhere with easy access to water, lots of nutrients, and shelter from the elements. But when he found the tree, he could see this wasn’t the case. Instead, the stubborn tree grew for nearly five millennia exposed to howling mountain winds and poor, rocky soil, far from any sure source of water.
Standing amongst those gnarled and bent trees clinging to rocky outcrops, I could see how adversity had shaped them, and I wondered if I was willing to grow like that. Could I let my own struggles transform me, or will I forever seek the certainty of comfort and ease?
I thought of the things that could define me, the things I had categorized as weaknesses, and which I tried my best to minimize: knowing almost no one in a new city; only working part-time in a different industry than I went to school for; being unsure the next time I’ll see the rest of my family; not knowing what I want to or should do next.
Bristlecone pines start out as strange little saplings, dotted with tufts of dense needles and a tough, grey skin. The ones near water and sheltered from the wind grow, but only for a few hundred years instead of thousands. The oldest and hardiest trees are the ones that grew with the wind and sun rather than fighting them, transforming into fantastic wooden sculptures, twisting until they became part of the wind itself.
What looks at first glance like deformities in fact make these ancient trees utterly remarkable, their trunks sanded smooth, the wind and sun painting it in mesmerizing shades of umber and sienna.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a leader in South Africa’s fight against apartheid, described this type of change as transfiguration. “As I sat quietly in the garden I realized the power of transfiguration—of God’s transformation—in our world. The principle of transfiguration is at work when something so unlikely as the brown grass that covers our veld in winter becomes bright green again.”
I think we all want to experience this kind of transformation. But as I stood in the rocky, barren mountains and listened to the wind tear through their valleys, I wasn’t sure I had it in me.”
Remember, the grass doesn’t turn that glowing, new green again unless it first dies.
If I were willing to face pain and hardship, even hardship as slight as being far from home, what would I find? If I were willing to let this shape me and remember that all the while I’m being shaped by the hand of God, what would I be left with?
Looking at these trees, standing in the profound silence of ancient mountains, I was shown my own fears and my own unwillingness to let myself be transformed. The forest confronted me with this truth: the beauty of their transformation was possible because of the adversity that came first—not in spite of it.
This truth was one I’d heard before, of course. It’s the truth of grace: we can find true strength only if we are willing to accept our own weakness; we can be transformed only if we are first willing to die. I thought of my own unwillingness to admit these things in this season of my life. Living in a new place, far from everything and everyone I know, my constant temptation is to hide my weakness and numb myself to the pain, living instead in a bubble of busyness, noise, and notifications.
In the days and weeks that followed, I tried to rest in moments of discomfort and weakness, rather than running from them. As I made room for more quiet and rest and even solitude, I felt as though I was once again standing amongst those ancient pines. Somehow, despite their silence, I felt full.