The Curse of the Methuselah Tree

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In the arid and inhospitable California desert stands a bristlecone pine tree with the mythical name of Methuselah. At nearly 5,000 years of age, it had long been thought to be the oldest living organism on our planet. Pre-dating the construction of the pyramids and the birth of Christ, the tree is a marvel of resilience and survival. “The Curse of the Methuselah Tree” attempts to deconstruct its long and complex history.

The most unique aspect of the film is its point of view. Much of the narration consists of sumptuous poetry provided by Roger McGough. Assuming the role of the tree, this lyrical inner monologue deepens our sense of empathy and engagement with the scope of events detailed in the film.

For much of its lifespan, the mysteries of this extraordinary tree eluded us. It wasn’t until Edmund Schulman, a pioneer in tree ageing, first discovered Methuselah in the 1950s that the scientific community began to take notice. Studying the endless layers of inner rings housed under its bark, Schulman was able to assemble a detailed account of the tree’s rich and eventful existence.

These rings convey stories of calamitous weather events, civilizations come and gone, and nuclear tests that set the desert ablaze with furious plumes of fire and diseased smoke. The film reenacts many of these events in visceral detail, including the emergence of ancient Indians to the region, the arrival of white immigrants soon after, and the actions of an industry that choked the desert of much of its resources.

When the seedlings of the tree’s bristlecones were examined in a lab, they showed no signs of deterioration. From outside appearances, the tree might strike spectators as nothing more than a weakened and twisted mass. But upon closer inspection, it’s as vital and robust as the day it was born.

“The Curse of the Methuselah Tree” is an impressive and multi-layered work. The history of this mystical tree reflects much of our own history in a manner that sets it apart from other documentaries that cover similar events. The film’s conclusion is equally distinct as it delivers an unexpectedly vivid and harrowing environmental statement.

Directed by: Ian Duncan

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