That is a bristlecone pine — Pinus longaeva — on the cover. So yes, this issue’s cover story is about a kind of tree. But it is not just about a tree, not even really about what may be the oldest living thing on earth, which the bristlecone pine is believed to be. The cover story is about life. About one man’s life and all of life, too, but it is mainly about the bristlecone pine. The fact that these scrubby little trees are more than 4,000 years old.
How does it live so long? How do scientists know? What can we learn from its perseverance, its endurance, its ability to thrive, survive, carry on in such hostile terrain? And why would this man make not one but two cross-continent pilgrimages in the span of a lifetime to see these ancient ones — first as a young man with the spirit of adventure in his soul and, much later, with the wages of living in his heart?
I first met Anthony DePalma almost 15 years ago, when he was a visiting scholar here. Someone said we should get together for lunch. It was a great first date. Lots to talk about, lots in common, easy comfort from the get-go. The conversation rolled freely, but it also found good depth.
DePalma talked about his son Aahren being diagnosed with cancer early in his freshman year at Notre Dame. He talked about what happened and how it felt and about Notre Dame’s response; I talked about the University, what I had seen over the years. That thread of conversation became a cover story for us: “The Soul of a University,” spring 2004. It also has a happy ending: Aahren DePalma ’04 is now married and a lawyer in Saint Louis.
We also talked about being products of our generation and what that meant and how — back then — we all took to the road, heading cross-country, trying to find ourselves, looking for America (as we said back then).
DePalma had set out from his hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey, on a quest to see for himself the bristlecone pine. He had always wanted to write that story, he said, but by the time we met he wanted to wait until he had gone back and stood in their presence as a grown man. I asked him to tell that story for us. We agreed it felt like a Notre Dame Magazine kind of story.
In the meantime, DePalma completed his 22 years as a foreign correspondent and reporter with The New York Times, published books, became writer in residence at Seton Hall University and wrote stories for us about Cuba, the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy and the environment. He contributed a major feature to our special Hesburgh edition and wrote Father Hesburgh’s obituary for The New York Times. But he hadn’t written about the bristlecone pine.
Now he has.
Through the years many writers have come to us wanting to tell what they call “a Notre Dame Magazine kind of story.” Although I’d hesitate to define just what that means, I think we all know. They are stories that fit the character of this place, this publication. It’s storytelling that spans the borders between seen and unseen, that reads like good friends talking about what matters to them most.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.