The oldest tree in the world died one day in 1964. Its name was Prometheus, and Donald Currey cut it down. It was not only the oldest tree, but the oldest living thing ever recorded. Currey wasn’t an un-caring logger or farmer making room for crops. He was a 30-year-old graduate student doing research into climate change throughout history.
Trees are windows into the past. By studying the spaces between the rings that form each year, we can learn something about the experience of each tree during that period of its life. Was it warmer or colder? Was it wetter or drier? In this way, trees are repositories of earth history.
Currey wasn’t planning on killing any trees. He had a special drill to remove samples from trees without cutting them down. That was the plan, but his drill got stuck in the first tree that he found. This was an irreplaceable drill from Sweden, and without it, his research would have to stop. Currey didn’t know what to do and went looking for help. A local park ranger told him, don’t worry, there are dozens of these trees in the park. We’ll just cut it down and remove your drill. Neither Currey nor the park ranger knew that Prometheus was a special tree when they killed the oldest life form known on earth. At the time, they had no idea just how old it was.
After retrieving his drill, Currey took a look at the rings inside. Each ring corresponded to a year of the tree’s life. By the end of the day, he had counted 1,000 years back in history. By the middle of the 2nd day, he had counted to 2,000 and he wasn’t even half-way finished. By the end, he counted a grand total of 4,844 rings. This tree had lived to nearly 5,000 years.
Currey was horrified. He was responsible for killing the oldest living tree in the world. There was an uproar around the country and people called him a murderer. Currey was apparently so disturbed, he stopped studying trees or anything living for that matter. He spent the rest of his career studying salt flats.
Currey probably never let go of the past or forgave himself for what he had done. More than 20 years later, he was being interviewed by a TV reporter about his salt flat research, when he was asked, “Aren’t you the Currey who cut down the oldest tree in the world?” Mid-interview, Currey turned his back and ran.