Bristlecones of the Long Now

Bristlecones of the Long Now artist book opens to 42×32 inches (105cm x 80cm). Edition of 8 artist books. 24 Photographic image plates by Ian van Coller. Essay by Jonathon Keats.  Drum Leaf bookbinding by Rory Sparks. Layout design by Ian van Coller. Book design by Rory Sparks. Published 2019. Doring Press, Bozeman, Montana. ISBN 978-0-9985760-2-2.

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By Jonathon Keats

Several million years ago, around the dawn of the last Ice Age, the North American Great Basin transitioned from a temperate region to cold desert. Bristlecone pine trees were present, as they had been for some forty million years, and they flourished with the change because they were suited to arid climates.

Today, as global temperatures rise, the Great Basin's bristlecones find themselves in less auspicious conditions. They're climbing to higher altitudes, not individually but as communities fleeing the rising heat. Saplings are taking root on mountaintops, which are becoming islands of refuge above a sea of warmth more favorable to faster-growing species. Encroaching temperate forest also threatens to engulf older bristlecones, some of which have been holding their ground for nearly five millennia.

Visiting Mt. Washington on the eastern cusp of Nevada, you cannot miss this evidence of climate change. With their long lives and evident age, the trees give living form to facts that scientists can only represent with numbers. You can literally climb through the Holocene, the geological epoch we're departing, and into the Anthropocene, the epoch we've been creating in our own image.

Bristlecone pine trees are intermediaries. They're deep-time liaisons. They connect us with the planet before the Industrial Revolution – a world that none of us encountered directly – because many of these trees lived before the steam engine was invented. Some have survived through the better part of human civilization – nearly halfway back to when the Ice Age ended – and memories of all that has occurred are embodied in their contours. When we encounter these arboreal elders, we're reminded of a time when humans did not have dominance. We fathom that their inner rings are unsullied by human industry.

Higher on the mountain, the bristlecone saplings provide a complementary viewpoint. With their potential to live for millennia, they confront us with the future: a timeframe corresponding perhaps with the fallout from our ecological hubris. Our environmental impact will outlast us and every generation of humans we'll ever meet. Getting to know these trees, we're put in contact with the next five thousand years, palpably extending the perception of accountability, and the horizon of responsibility.

That is the potential impact of bristlecones individually, on individual humans. When the trees are observed collectively – considered in terms of their 40 million year occupancy of the Great Basin – they become intermediaries between species. The sense of geological time emerges as the trees are seen within their terrain, amidst wood from fallen ancestors. (The trees grow so slowly, producing trunks of such density, that their remains are nearly as rigid as fossils.) The visible contrast between the length of bristlecones' habitation and the speed of their migration suggests how swiftly fortunes can change for trees and for humans.

In this volume, Ian van Coller captures these different timescales, and evokes their implications, by showing individual trees with the intense focus of portraiture and using the broad scope of landscape photography to situate them in time. Through these two perspectives, and at monumental scale, we encounter the trees with an immediacy equivalent to van Coller's encounters on Mt. Washington.

The camera is an intermediary. These photographs are timely liaisons between the trees of the Great Basin and ourselves.