We were at the lava fields for two days. At one point, I saw a dead Siberian pine with this beautiful, complex architecture that showed signs of great age.
One of my pet hobbies is identifying old trees by their external characteristics. These Siberian pines are very bulbous — you can see there’s been dieback on certain parts of the trunk, and then you can see there’s regrowth. They almost look like inverted carrots — they’re much wider at the base, and they’re usually big and twisty and gnarled. So when I saw this tree, I just really got excited; if we found one, maybe there were more.
In Mongolia, dead trees can be preserved for hundreds of years because it’s so cold and dry. But they’re usually not around for us to study. Wood is valuable in that country, so when a dead tree falls, it’s usually utilized or burned in fires. So it wasn’t what we were expecting to see; it was just a great, surprising gift.
Because these pines were really an afterthought, we made only a quick collection and sampled just 18 trees: seven dead and 11 living ones. From that very, very small collection of pine, I was thinking we’d be able to compile a reliable record going back 700 years, maybe 800. But from the edge to the center of one [cross section] there were 800 rings. When this record was combined with the other tree samples, we went back about 1,100 years in all — that was really astounding. This is the first tree-ring record that is providing a climatic context for some of the great changes in Asian and world history.
[This article originally appeared in print as "Reading the Trees."]