Rebecca Beck

 
 

SENTINEL

 

Viewed from downslope, the bristlecone pine looked like an old man guarding the mountain. Its widest section protruded just where an abdomen would be, in this case, a drooping beer belly sagging over wool trousers shiny with wear. The only vestige of green was a small cap of pine needles covering withered tendrils of gray moss. To Jim, the moss was the old man’s hair bristly with age, easily flattened in sleep, hair that could stand vertical and make him look crazy. The tree’s exposed and striated roots were its muscles bulging with the effort of climbing the ridge.

The pine’s gnarled form narrated the survival of impossible demands. Minute by minute it pumped gallon upon gallon of water through its trunk while alchemizing carbon dioxide into oxygen. A single, desiccated patch of bark about nineteen inches wide and belly-high looked like an organ plucked by a mythical bird of prey. Because of this, the locals had dubbed the tree “Prometheus.”

Always a fixture in Jim’s upbringing, when he was barely old enough to wander outside his back door, he’d scale the talus slope to sit at Prometheus’s feet. Later, he’d look for footholds so he could claw his way up its trunk, only to fail. Exhausted, he’d rest amid the quartz debris tossed by countless avalanches the old bristlecone had survived. He didn’t mind their points jabbing his thighs every time he shifted his position; his sense of power overrode discomfort as he gazed outward from beneath the tree’s solid limbs, dizzied by the height of his perch and the delicious potential of freefall into the cloudless sky before him.  

Later, he and his adventurous friends often chose Prometheus as their party spot, even though they had to hike off-trail to reach it. They’d stow beer in their packs and venture upward, heedless of potential dangers. Once beneath the tree’s shelter, to the sound of can after can popping open, they’d broach taboo topics—girlfriends, sex, the whole business of commitment, or not, their futures. Once, he and four buddies, with their arms, tried to circle Prometheus. At first, they were tentative as they hugged the tree and stretched toward one another’s fingertips; it felt too intimate, too silly. But they persisted and afterward laughed to cover their awe over the undeniable energy they felt when they locked their chests against its trunk.

Today was his twenty-fourth birthday, August 12, 1964, and he climbed Prometheus’s slope not to celebrate with his friends, but as part of his work with the Forest Service. His knowledge of the area extended across miles of terrain. The Service needed people who weren’t intimidated by rattlers, mountain lions, or worse, by languorous afternoon shadows stretching into steep inclines, throwing one off course.

And now, he waited for a guy named Don and three other grad students from the University of North Carolina to catch up to him. They were boring cores from old trees as a way to document their age and figure out if they had lived during The Little Ice Age when, for four hundred years, the temperature in the region had dropped. The apparent age of Old Man Prometheus, along with other trees in the glen, suggested they had lived through the cool period. He pictured four hundred years of Antarctic winds twisting their trunks into the dancers’ silhouettes before him.

Jim wasn’t particularly interested in Don’s project. But he did want to do his job right, which meant he’d need to ensure paperwork was in order, and he’d have to monitor the group so they didn’t get lost.

The five of them had driven as far up the mountain as the Forest Service jeep could go. From there they shouldered their gear and hiked up 10,700 feet to reach the cloudless, lapis sky engulfing the Northwest flank of Wheeler Peak. He had pushed ahead of them to ensure the stand was free of rattlers.

Among the locals, the question of Prometheus’s age served as an excuse for both debate and storytelling. When he was little, Jim’s grandmother had told him Prometheus was by far the oldest of the trees—most people claimed it had reached maturity before Columbus made it across the ocean. And now he wondered if the later explorers, Fremont and Carson, would have rested beneath its mottled shade and gazed outward, shaking their heads in awe.

He knew the team was nearing when he heard Don’s huffing voice discussing the day’s plans. After sharing a cursory nod with Jim, Don turned to his three companions. “Okay, here we are. Last summer, I decided the outward appearance of these trees suggested growth characteristics in line with The Little Ice Age.” As Don spoke, he rocked back on his heels. “Seventy percent of the trees in this stand lived through the entire era—thousands of years, my friends. That’s my theory, and we need to get cores from one of them to verify what we’re pretty sure is true.” He swept his arm in an exaggerated arc as he pointed to each tree in turn. “Last summer, in measuring the girth of each of these eight and in examining their patterns of bark loss, I’ve decided this one, called Prometheus by the locals, is likely the oldest.” He pulled what looked like a pencil-sized drill bit from his pack. Its bluish patina suggested forge-to-polish precision. “When we bore into the old guy with this, he’ll shout his age.”

The team’s lone female appeared less than impressed with Don’s lecture. Unlike the women Jim knew, who wore demure skirts with cardigans and lacquered hairstyles, this woman’s long, dark braids snaked down her chest. His eyes kept darting to the tight-fitting jeans hugging her slim hips and the swirling colors in her t-shirt. Its sleeves were cropped, exposing the precise arc of her shoulders. He tried to quit staring and force an expression of indifference.

“Will multiple bores in the trunk make it vulnerable to insects?” she asked, coaxing a pair of wire rims back onto the bridge of her nose.

“No, Carol, no need to lose beauty sleep. This species is armor-clad when it comes to infestations. And I’ll handle the procedure in a way that won’t even disturb its growth. I know how focused you are on preservation issues.”

Jim noticed the flush rise on Carol’s neck and thought of how he’d be walking away if someone talked to him like that.

With more drama than the situation called for, he set the bit in the borer and began cranking the handle. “As we discussed back in Raleigh, The Little Ice Age, my friends, was a four hundred year–long phenomenon that took place over four thousand years ago. Prometheus has likely survived its entire reign—roughly five thousand inconceivable years. Imagine surviving all that time. Guys, we are essentially on an arid slope in a time machine collecting living data on climatic changes that occurred eons ago.”

Jim saw Carol smirk at Don’s diatribe. He caught her eye and raised his eyebrows. When it drew a smile from her he felt the rush of having won something. Even so, Don’s facts were news to him. He hadn’t realized the tree was not only as old as Columbus but likely thousands of years older. He smiled to think of his dad shaking his head at the full implication of the tree’s age before he quipped, “Well, what do ya know—your shins have been skinned by the oldest living relic on earth.” If only he could tell them.

Don’s breath began to run shallow even though he had barely begun. Brad, the other student, offered to take over. “No, not yet; I’ll get this first one, then you can have a go.”

The shards crunching under Jim’s boots as he walked toward his canteen offered a needed distraction. He didn’t know why he felt pinpricks of wariness, but he knew he wanted the group gone. He tilted his head back to take a sip and used his long, steady gulping to study Carol from the corner of his eye. She stood with her hip cocked and a sardonic expression as she watched Don wrestle the drill. Jim smiled as he lowered his drink—well, maybe not her gone.

The bit’s snapping was quieter than he would have expected. He saw that Brad and Gerry with their heads together, didn’t turn at the sound.  

“God Damn it! God Damn!” Don held the drill close to his body as he examined it. “Well, the worst has happened,” he announced, as he tossed it to the ground. “It snapped.” His voice wavered. “We’re essentially screwed.”

The group stood silent, fascinated by their shoes, the new fringe of clouds above them, what was happening a few feet downslope.

Brad asked the first question. “What now, Don?”

Don jutted his chin in Brad’s direction. “What do you think? Every option is viable until it’s eliminated, and for good reason.”

“But what options do we have?”   

“Well, obviously we have the most reliable, traditional method available.”

Carol’s voice rose. “No. This is not a decision you get to make on your own, Don.” She looked to the other two for backup. “You know as well as I that other trees in this area, even though they’re younger, will provide the same data.”

Brad looked at her, then back at Don. “She has a point, man. And anyway, the wood shards on the ground are probably more valuable for our purposes. They’ll be even older.”

“Come on, guys. Capturing data from this oldest living tree will be the jewel in our project’s crown. Hell, this beast could be older than the bristlecone discovered a few years ago in California.”

Jim turned to study Brad’s expression, then took charge, announcing, “Whatever it is you’re planning, you’ll have to continue tomorrow. Your work’s obviously done for today. I’ll meet you at the jeep in twenty minutes.”

Jim turned the vehicle around and made no effort to spare his passengers the brunt of the landscape as he bounced through potholes and over hillocks on their way back to the office. Fear does this to people, he thought, turns them into jerks. Something is screwed up—way wrong. He pulled up to the Forest Service office. Its door displayed a “closed for lunch” sign that made him glad for the reprieve.

The team gathered their packs and headed to their vehicle. When Don reached the driver-side door, without turning toward Jim, he called, “See you tomorrow, man.”

Jim didn’t bother looking at Don when he answered, “sure.”

As Don drove away, Jim opened the office and looked around, wondering if his boss, Cox, had left him a note.

The cabin showed evidence of having once been someone’s home—Jean Fry’s, a friend of his grandmother. Faded daffodils paraded across curtains hanging in the vestige of her kitchen, now a break area. An embroidered picture of a wishing well decorated the wall. Varying shades of thread cast the shadow of the well’s depth and the shimmer of water on its surface. It was the kind of thing his grandmother would have made. He retrieved his lunch and a bottle of soda from a dented red cooler.

As he washed his hands in the bathroom, his eyes rested on a yellowed postcard still tacked to the wall, one he had glanced at countless times. Niagara Falls, roiling so hard the camera picked up vapor swirling and rising from its massive wall. At its base, a boat of tourists in black hooded raincoats pointed at the pounding cascade. On impulse, Jim unpinned the card from the window and turned it over, tentative, as if examining the underside of a dying leaf.

September 25, 1910.

Jean, you and Leland must come here for your honeymoon! We are having such a time! So much water everywhere, rushing so fast and furious it makes your head spin! We took this boat tour yesterday. I got soaked despite my raincoat!

Alma

Funny, Jim hadn’t known Jean Fry had been married. He remembered his grandmother remarking more than once that Jean had lived alone her entire adult life. It occurred to him the card documented a lost promise. He thought again of his parents, of how he wanted to share Prometheus’s age with them, of how he needed to bring his mom the twelve-inch pinecones she loved or see her roll her eyes at one of his insipid jokes.

Jim flipped the card to its front and ran his thumb over the tourists. Their faces were open and riveted to the sight before them. He wondered if he would ever travel with a bride to an unknown place. Would they be game for hopping in a kitschy boat with a group of strangers and riding around the foot of something so relentless and violent? He turned to gaze out the window and Carol came to mind, her braids, her hips in those jeans. He hoped so.

The image of the waterfall’s timeless power pulled him back to Prometheus. If he drew a timeline of earth’s history, countless millimeters would mark its age—thousands of years that would cause the eye to jump when studying it. The tree had lived through the erection of Stonehenge and the building of the Pyramids. It would have stood sentinel as generations of hunters camped in its shade, their weapons evolving from stone axes to spring-loaded rifles. He thought of Prometheus clinging to the moraine through drought-plagued years when dried soil powdered its leaves, envisioned the avalanches it survived, saw rock shards creeping like lava toward its bent shape. He took a swig from his soda to ward off his barbs of angst.

Bill Cox entered the cabin as he always did by dramatically wiping his feet back and forth on the doormat before stamping them as if to knock off mud or snow, regardless of the weather.

“Hey, Bill, how are things?”

“They’re good, Jim. I was just over to Camden Rock. I read about the possibility of blight in some of the jack pines up there, so I checked it out.”

“Did you find any evidence?”

“No, just some browning needles that I think are more related to our record-breaking rainfall.”

“Yeah, all two inches of it!” Jim replied with a note of sarcasm.

Cox looked over his glasses at Jim. “How did things go on Weaver this morning?”

“Well, seems to me this Don character is a bit green. He had this wimpy bit that he actually thought he’d be able to crank into Prometheus. Of course, it broke in five minutes, and now he’s pissed. Don’t know what he’s planning, since apparently the bit comes from Sweden and the things aren’t sitting on a shelf somewhere waiting to be sold.”

“Well, I had planned to stop up there today and check things out. I’ll drive up in the morning. We’ll give them another day and if they don’t come up with something viable, we’ll cut short their permit.”

Jim pocketed the postcard. “Sounds good. I’m going to eat, then spend the rest of the day helping Phil.”

* * *

Just after dawn, Jim sat beneath Prometheus studying the sky above the ridgeline’s curve. The wind had picked up and caused feather clouds to morph into a dervish of gray threat headed toward the glen. He counted on them dissipating in an hour. He ran his left hand in a quick sweep through his hair at the sight of Carol’s approaching form. When she came into focus he saw half-moons beneath her eyes. She met his gaze with a bloodshot stare.

Don shared a wide smile just as a hawk spilled a shrill whistle while dive-bombing its prey. “Morning Jim.”

Jim offered a faint wave. “Morning everyone.”

“Jim,” Don began, “we met last night to figure out our options, and we’ve decided there’s only one way we can make the most of what’s left of the summer. We don’t have time to replace the bit, and even if we did, chances are it would break.” He avoided meeting Jim’s eyes. “We have no choice but to cut down the tree for a ring analysis.”

Jim’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re joking, right?”

“We’re dead serious, Jim. It’s the only way we can verify the tree’s age. Even if we waited until next month for a new bit, I’m sure it’d break in ten minutes.”

Prometheus, a living museum marking time and endurance. He shook his head. Insanity. He knew the sound of felled trees from clear-cutting operations—hours of earth-shaking thuds followed by the hollow silence of loss. Wind that used to circle and bend Prometheus’s form would echo atonal in the absence of twigs and leaves to fine-tune its pitch. One day, that wind would ruffle the hair of a kid as he set his drink on the shiny brass plaque marking where the tree had once stood. His face contorted. “We don’t make it a habit of cutting down one of the oldest living things on the planet in order to support . . . ”

Don’s face reddened. “Yeah? We’ll see about that. You’re hardly an authority around here.”

Jim’s jaw clenched. “I may not be the authority, but I know what the authorities will say. I’m telling you it’s not happening. You’re not cutting down this ancient tree in order to pinpoint its age. Even you must see the irony here.”

“It’s science, man. Data collection enables more funding to study and preserve what’s here.”

Jim scoffed. “Do you even hear yourself?” He squared his shoulders. “I want you to clear out of here, now,” he ordered. “Your permit was to obtain core samples. Since that’s no longer possible, it no longer applies.”

At this moment, Bill Cox’s head emerged from beneath the ridge. “What’s up, guys?”

Jim threw up his hands. “We have a crazy situation here, that’s what’s up. Don wants to cut down Prometheus. He claims it’s the only way he can verify its age. I told him we aren’t in the habit of cutting down ancient trees just to prove a theory.”

Don stepped closer to Cox. “Superintendent Cox, I’m Don Cummins. I think you’re in charge here, correct?”

“Yes, I head the East Central regional office. Now, Mr. Cummins, tell me more about your plan.”

As Don spoke with Cox, Jim felt as though he were trapped in a fourth-grade production of Alice in Wonderland. Don, the Mad Hatter, all confidence, smirking as if everything were normal while proposing nonsense. And he, Alice, a powerless observer with an alarmed expression as the Hatter spouted garbled words others accepted as truth. His alarm rose another notch when he saw Cox’s slow nod as Don swept his hands across the cluster of ancient trees. As Don placed a hand on the older man’s shoulder, Jim shook his head. That bastard, he’s playing him.

Jim tried to shape his avalanche of feelings into words that would persuade Cox to call off the charade, but his thoughts floundered. He kicked at a boulder. “God damn it, Bill, how can we let them cut down a nearly five-thousand-year-old tree so they can verify that it’s five thousand years old?” He shook his head. “It’s sheer insanity.”

“Whoa, Jim!” Cox warned. Turning to Don, he added, “Jim has a good point. I’m sure you see the irony in your request, right?”

Don nodded. “Of course, I do. I know it must sound crazy, but without knowing the tree’s age, we can’t justify pouring resources into this region for further study. My team develops models that quantify the history of climate in a region. The trees tell us invaluable stories that help verify our theories. This data helps us predict climatic patterns in the future, essentially, what’s in store for our great-grandkids. If this tree survived The Little Ice Age, well, the implications for our work are huge.”

Jim knew Don was dressing up his argument with bullshit. They couldn’t collect microclimate data without cutting down the tree. What crap. Don wants his grant money, wants his theory of the tree’s age as a carrot to dangle in front of stakeholders. And I want a rabbit hole, want to come out its other end in a time warp where this isn’t happening, will never happen.

“But Bill,” his voice broke as he protested, “How can we let them do this? What if this tree is as old as Don thinks? We’d be destroying something priceless—a living relic from the depths of time—not a fossil—something alive, something still contributing to a living ecosystem.”

“Jim, we’re living in a new era. You know full well that three years ago, Kennedy announced we’d have astronauts on the moon by the end of the decade. We have to do our part to support the efforts of those who know more than we do.” He glanced at Don. “I’m sure Don’s going to get valuable information from cutting down Prometheus.”

At this point, Carol stepped forward. She lowered her head as she addressed Cox. “Hello, Superintendent Cox. I feel I have to say—”

Don’s brows formed a straight line. “Carol, you know I’m the point person on this project.”

“Yes, but Mr. Cox needs to know all sides of this before he—”

“Go ahead, dear,” Cox intoned.

Carol paused to consider her words. “There are other ways to get the data we need. I agree with Jim, this is a terrible idea. If this tree is the oldest living organism—

Don’s eyes bulged in anger. “Carol, you need to stand down and let me do my job.”

Cox pursed his lips. “I tell you what, Miss. I’ll let the State Superintendent decide on the next steps here.” He turned to face Jim, took his arm, and steered him away from the group. “And you, you have to remember, son, you grew up here. This region is your world. You know full well that hardly any tourists go out of their way to see this ugly, half-dead tree. Hell, I bet no more than seventy-five visitors have seen it in the last ten years.” He lowered his voice, “Son, nobody will give a damn.”

He turned back to the group. “And now, I’ve heard enough for one day. It’s time for all of us to pack up.”

* * *

“Cox, I’m leaving this to your discretion,” the state Superintendent told him over the phone the next morning. “But I’m telling you, it’s going to be hard, dangerous work to get those tree ring samples down the mountain. Do you have enough people for the job?”

“Yeah, Randy. The kids from UNC assured me they’d contribute their sweat, and I’ll pull in my full crew.”

“And the bristlecone, you think it could be five-thousand-years old as this Cummins character claims?”

“He’s a green grad student, a geologist who specializes in climate. I don’t see how he’d know this. Besides, how would the tree have survived thousands of years upon that balding mountain? It’s preposterous.”

“Okay, then, it’s up to you. Maybe our collaboration with UNC will earn us some good publicity with the National Parks Division.”

“Thanks, Randy. I agree. There could be many years of a solid partnership here. I’ll take another look around today and let you know what we decide.”

As soon as Cox hung up, the phone rang again. He studied the button flashing on extension three, the one his team used. It strobed four more times before he turned and headed out the door.

* * *

Jim approached Cox when he appeared on the ridge. “Any word? I tried calling you.”

Cox swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, son.” He looked away from Jim. “The state approved Don’s request.”

Jim spoke through his tightening jaw. “I hope you don’t ask me to do this, Bill, because I can’t.”

“Remember, Jim, you’re in the Forest Service. You think you could pick and choose your assignments if you were in the armed services or in any other job for that matter?”

“No, I don’t. I’m just saying, I’m . . . I’m not going to be the one to do this, Bill.” His voice rose. “I’m not your guy.” He swept his hand through his hair. “You can radio Phil and Randy to help with this. They could get here in an hour.”

Cox took a step closer to him. “Jim, you’re a valuable member of our team. Hell, we’d be hard-pressed without you.”

“I’m not planning on going anywhere. I just can’t be part of this circus.”

Cox hooked his thumbs in his belt. “You need to think about what you’re saying. You know this will look bad on your review.” He tapped his fingers on its worn leather. “Hell, I’m getting ready to retire soon. You’d be next in line for my job.” He met Jim’s eyes. “But if you ignore directions, things won’t go so well for you.” He paused, then added, “Besides, removing samples of this tree will be dangerous. We’ll need all hands on deck.”

Jim shook his head in disbelief.

Cox’s voice softened. “I know this doesn’t make sense to you. But hey, we all have to do things we don’t like.”

Jim scoffed. He wasn’t a child, and Cox wasn’t his dad. He shook his head at the insanity and pivoted to study the ridgeline, the sky, how cirrus clouds had replaced the billowing grays and allowed sunlight to blaze through their curls. He tried to think of the years ahead—the promise of doing what he loved. He worked to convince himself that this tree shouldn’t rule the choice he’d make in the next hour. He sank to the ground, rested his back against a boulder.

Cox fished a radio from his pocket and over bumbling static, voiced the request for Randy and Phil to make their way to Wheeler Peak. After he placed the call, he looked back at Jim. “It’s your decision, son. You think on it. Randy and Phil will be here soon. You can decide to join this party or not when they get here.”

Carol walked over to him and sat cross-legged in the shards. “I admire what you’re doing, Jim. There’s no stopping these idiots, but at least you’re taking a stand. I feel like a hypocrite, doing nothing.”

“Hey, you spoke up. And in reality, what else could you do, wrestle their gear away from them?” He tried to smile. “We’re outnumbered, my friend. We both know Don can make things miserable for you back at school. You shouldn’t even be speaking with me.”

“I should leave in protest, find another school, another major. Or maybe, she paused, I should just drop out.” She shook her head. “I can’t participate in killing this tree. And my God, this is such needless bullshit. We don’t need this tree to get our data. It’s infuriating.”

Jim studied the perfect ridge that ran beneath her nose to the upward curve of her lip. He had to suppress the impulse to trace it with his finger. “You know, the best thing you can do is stay in the program. Get that degree, then get your doctorate. Land a job where you can wield your influence.” He managed to smile. “In other words, kick some ass.”

 Carol’s eyes traveled to Jim’s. “Maybe you’re right. But damn, I sure feel like a fraud today.” As she shifted her weight in order to stand, they heard the pull of a cord, as innocuous a sound as a lawn mower’s start-up, then, the staccato of the chainsaw’s two-stroke engine as it puttered to life. They both looked at Cox, who held it far from his body as he waited for the idle to become a purr. Then he squeezed its trigger and its roar shattered any hope of a change in plans.

Carol put her hand on Jim’s arm as Cox raised the saw’s teeth to Prometheus. The roaring ascended to a high-pitched wail as it chewed its way through the tree’s outer bark. Cox’s back curved into a deep S as he battled it further in for the first horizontal cut needed for the notch. As he reached his mark, it bucked, causing him to stumble backward. He stood taller before attacking it for the second, angled cut that would complete the notch. Blue smoke and fumes spewed helter-skelter as the engine screeched. After several minutes he set the saw on the ground and put his hands on his knees to catch his breath.

Phil picked it up. Prometheus’s layers acted like stones set in place by a master mason. They would only budge under the most extreme speed and duress the chainsaw could deliver. Under the strain of Phil’s efforts, its whine plunged to a low and prolonged protest as it ate its way toward the tree’s primal heart.   

Jim crouched nearby, taking in the bristlecone’s smell as the saw jarred and wrenched it from its hold on the earth. He would have expected its demise to smell like pine run through a band saw—clean and green. It didn’t. It cast the burning scent of old limestone submitting to a high-powered saw in a stone mill as it transformed rock into a rose for embellishing a far-off skyscraper.

As the tree began to yield, Phil turned the saw over to Cox, as if to bestow an honor on him. Cox took it up.

The roar of the tree’s massive weight slamming into the earth brought Jim to his feet. In the next half-second, he felt the ground’s terrible tremor. His ears buzzed and he stumbled to keep his balance before bending forward to avoid vomiting. All his days he would carry the finality of Prometheus’s death call. He looked up to see Don glance at him with a look of disdain, then back at Brad to catch his eye. He realized that because the tree didn’t ooze blood, these men couldn’t feel its death. They thought they were only sawing lumber that would perhaps end up as planks squeaking beneath their feet in a distant home in an unnamable future.

As the others sectioned off parts of the tree, Jim walked away, each of his steps as tentative as touching a wound on the earth’s surface. He hit level ground near his jeep, strode over to it, and opened the glove box to pull out his binoculars, wallet, and keys.

He traced a mental line away from the death scene, set his sights on it, and began the trek back to the park office. He thought about all he was losing with the death of Prometheus—a sanctuary, a history, an inexplicable bond with an entirely different being. His head fell. Was everything in the world so transitory? If that bristlecone could cling to stone hills for close to five thousand years only to be felled by a mid-sized chainsaw, what chance on earth or in hell did he have?

He started up a slope, then turned back to gaze at what was now the gap where Prometheus had stood. He could see the team’s movements, saw Carol with her hand blocking the sun as she scanned the mountain. He hoped she was trying to catch sight of him.

Just as the wind kicked up, his last words to her circled back, their imperative clear— “Stay. Kick some ass.” 

______________________________________________________________________________

 
 

“Sentinel” is a fictionalized account of a 1964 event that raised questions and outrage from multiple sources, both domestic and international.