Bloomberg News

Gormless Grad Killed World’s Oldest Tree: Lewis Lapham

August 18, 2012

On Aug. 6, 1964, Donald Currey was at the timberline of Nevada’s Wheeler Peak looking for bristlecone pines, the oldest trees on earth.

(To listen to the podcast, click here.)

A graduate student, he was working on a climate timeline, and the trees held valuable data. Using a Swedish borer, Currey took samples from trunks without harming the pines.

His 114th specimen had a 252-inch circumference and was so tough it broke his regular borer and the backup. The Forest Service gave him permission to get out his chain saw and cut the tree down.

It turned out to be “Prometheus,” more than 5,000 years old, and known to conservationists as the most ancient living thing on earth. A sapling when the Sumerians created mankind’s first written language, it had now been pointlessly destroyed.

I spoke with Eric Rutkow, author of “American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation,” on the following topics:

1. Virgin Forests

2. Commodification

3. Founding Fathers

4. Conservation

5. American Backwoods Heroes

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

Muse Highlights include NYC Weekend Best and movie reviews.

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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