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Yesterday a friend and I spent a couple hours driving and walking through fog to find the largest limber pine in the state of Montana.

Largest, you ask? Nominated trees are subjected to three different criteria. The height and canopy spread are triangulated in feet, the diameter-at-breast-height measured in inches. Those numbers are plugged into a simple, somewhat arbitrary equation to come up with a single number, a number taken to represent the tree’s size. The largest specimens to pass through the rigmarole are listed on state tree registries.

When we started hanging out a couple years ago, over a decade after we knew each other in high school, this friend and I quickly discovered that the state tree registry was an interest we both shared. It’s a nerdy thing to have in common, one to list under a self-deprecating heading like “Quiet Desperation: Life Over Thirty,” but whatever. If the excitement of a big tree is altogether foreign to you you’re not reading this blog.

The tree is located on private land in the Highland Mountains. It is nice to think of the Highlands as holding some sort of record because in so many ways they are an undistinguished range. Part of a boulder batholith that broadly extends far to the north and west, the Highlands are arid with lodgepole forest largely confined to north facing slopes, and otherwise feature great skirts of sagebrush like you’d picture in Montana.

Limber pines, it just so happens, are one of my favorite trees. They are white pines—closely related to whitebarks, with five-needle clusters and large, edible seeds. Among white pines, the limber’s distinguishing feature is its range. Limber pines alone rise from the black crusts of Idaho’s Craters of the Moon. They stand unchallenged along parched sandstone hogbacks. They are so often silhouetted against the sky as twisted, solitary old trolls because, character-wise, they are tortured and obtuse and solitary. They are perfect symbols of the West.

Because its range is so often characterized by adversity the limber pine isn’t known to grow especially large. What’s likeable about it is its expressiveness: atrophied limbs, twists and sprials, heartwood exposed and burnished by the elements, graphic countenances. They’re easy to anthropomorphize.

As we walked down what we figured was the last draw toward the champion I became concerned by all the recent mortality in other limber pines. “It’ll be a miracle if this thing is still alive,” I said, knowing that mature trees are often the most targeted by beetles. “Of course, everything about it is a miracle,” I thought again, trailing off. And, we soon discovered, the largest limber pine in Montana was dead. The last known time someone went out to visit it was in 2013; I guessed that it was infested with beetles in summer 2014, during our multi-year drought, and by the next year all its needles would’ve flared red. Now, the needles are scattered on the ground, the last pinecones have been dismantled by birds and rodents.

The shattered limbs, the last straps of living bark that still coil its contours like snakes, the hollows of rot excavated then filled with pinecones and elk vertebrae by pack rats, the enormous roots clenching mineral soil, the half dozen young green limber pines that surround it—even as a husk, the late, great limber pine tells a story of hardship and silent endurance that extends long before Europeans conquered the American wild. Now that story turns over to decomposers.

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