Ken Brunges: Guardian of the Tree

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2014 23:00


Ken Brunges’ commute to his office is rough. He drives two hours, climbing high into the mountains before rumbling over a dozen miles of dirt roads and fording two occasionally tire-deep creeks.

But what an office it is: The 67-year-old Brunges works out of a 10-by-12-foot tent cabin pitched at 8,400 feet amid the Stanislaus National Forest. The air is cool, the scenery spectacular, the hours flexible – and he seldom sees his boss.

Not only that, but he doesn’t get performance evaluations, layoffs never loom and no young corporate guns are angling for his job. Even that nasty commute is bearable, considering it’s only once a week amid scant traffic.

Brunges for 26 years has worked for the Save the Redwoods League as guardian, maintenance supervisor, guide and host – about 1,500 people visit each summer season – for a tree that’s not a redwood at all.

His companion for well over a third of his life has been the Bennett Juniper, an 87-foot-tall, 14-foot-in-diameter survivor that is at least 2,000 years old and may have lived three times that long. This upper estimate would date the tree back to 4000 B.C., when bronze tools and writing were as new as the Internet is today.

Named for amateur naturalist Clarence Bennett, who took an interest in the tree in the 1930s, this champion western juniper is the oldest and largest known member of its species in the world.

“My job is to make sure it isn’t loved to death,” says Brunges, who came to the Mother Lode from the Bay Area to raft rivers in the 1970s, and in 1987 – entirely by accident – found what has become his calling.

The tree’s 3.5-acre site, off Eagle Meadow Road in Tuolumne County’s high country, had just been bequeathed by The Nature Conservancy to the Save the Redwoods League. The League’s then-director, John DeWitt, had a cabin in Twain Harte, was a frequent visitor to the tree and decided the gnarly old juniper could use some help.

“The League didn’t have any local connections and asked me if I knew a contractor in the area who might want to do some work up there,” remembers Brunges. “I said I’d think about it.”

But he came up empty and so did the League. “So a few months later, they called back and were looking for a handyman who would live at the tree from June into October,” recounts Brunges. “They asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said sure.”

Bennet-Juniper-coverFN00073In early 1988, on a $1,500-a-month contract, he set up camp, went to work and began to learn about the Bennett Juniper. Indians, he found, had likely discovered the tree hundreds of years earlier.

“There are 10 bedrock mortar sites within two miles of here,” says Brunges. “The  Me-Wuks probably followed game up the hill each summer and made several stops, some near the juniper, along the way.”

At the start of the 20th century, Basque shepherds tended their flocks in the area and word about the huge tree began to spread. When Bennett began making inquiries, Sonoran Ed Burgson took him to the juniper – on property then owned by the Joe Martin family.

Bennett’s research has since been lost, Brunges says, but the Bay Area naturalist’s interest spurred a group of local conservationists to name the tree after him. In 1963, members of the now-defunct Bennett Juniper Association dedicated a still-standing three-ton granite monument to what they claimed to be “the oldest thing that God has wrought.”

Although bristlecone pines were later proved to be longer-lived than junipers, Tuolumne County’s tree became an attraction. More and more people took the long, bumpy drive to see it. Wanting to protect the tree, owner Joe Martin Sr. had more than a decade earlier donated acreage surrounding the juniper to The Nature Conservancy.

But the Conservancy did not assign a caretaker to the tree, and yes, visitors were loving it to death.

“When I got there in the spring of 1988, there had been so much foot traffic that the roots of the tree were bare,” Brunges recounts. “And so many people were leaning against it for photos that there were scars on the trunk.”

So he covered its roots with soil, posted signs asking visitors to stay 25 feet away from the trunk, built a quarter-mile trail to the tree, installed benches for picnickers and photographers, and fenced the property to keep seasonally grazing cattle away.

But as much as he has done for the Bennett Juniper, Brunges is better known as the agreeable host to hundreds who leave the beaten path to visit the tree each year. Again and again, he answers the same questions – “How old is it?” and “How tall is it?” are the most frequent – and if he’s ever bored, it doesn’t come across.

“I’d much rather talk to people about the tree than pass out pamphlets,” reasons Brunges, who through summer and early fall spends five days a week with the juniper.  “And when people listen, then look back at the tree and say, ‘Wow! Imagine that,’ it makes it worthwhile.”

Just how knowledgeable is this back-country host?

“If people ask me enough questions, they get a speech,” laughs Brunges, whose research over the years makes him a fountain of information, both basic and obscure, on the Bennett Juniper.

The Manning family from the Bay Area town of Belmont – Eric, Michelle and youngsters Nicholas, 9, and Jacqueline, 6 – drove up to the tree on a sunny summer Saturday to put him to the test. “A friend said we just had to drive out and see Ken and the juniper,” says Eric.

Jacqueline begins the quiz. “Does anyone know why this tree has lived so long?” she asks, looking up from a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich.

Her host is ready. “It sits on dry ground, but there’s a spring nearby, so it can get all the water it needs,” Brunges explains. “It’s right in the middle of the species’ north-south range at a perfect elevation. It’s also in a protected bowl, so there’s not a lot of fire danger or competition. It’s a perfect balance.”

Jacqueline looks back at the juniper with renewed wonder, but her family has more questions. “Why can’t scientists just count tree rings to get a precise age?” asks Eric.

The core of the tree, as is the case with most old junipers, has rotted out, making a precise count impossible, Brunges answers. A chunk of tree dragged from the core by a marmot in the 1990s was Carbon 14 tested, yielding a “provable minimum age” of 2,000 years. Partial core samples tested at a University of Arizona lab yielded a 3,000- to 4,000-year estimate, and Bennett himself guessed 6,000.


Brunges with Augie under entwined junipers “Fred and Ginger,” Bennett at right

“Impressive no matter which number you pick,” Brunges says.

“So how much longer could it live?” asks Nicholas.

“This may not be scientific, but I believe trees that get beyond 1,000 years won’t die of old age or disease,” Brunges answers. “They’ve already defeated almost everything that could do them in.  So I think it would take a catastrophe of some kind to kill the Bennett Juniper.

“A lightning strike would probably be the most likely. It could spiral down the tree, girdle the bark and destroy the channels that carry nutrients to the top. Or it could start a fire inside the tree.”

And, yes, the area gets plenty of storms. Brunges, who doubles as a volunteer lookout for the U.S. Forest Service, last summer reported six lightning fires. And a bolt from a flurry of mid-July storms this year ignited nearly 40 fires forest wide.

“So who planted this tree?” asks Jacqueline, cranking the conversation back a few millennia.

Probably a bird, Brunges answers. It might have happened during the Roman Empire (more than 2,000 years ago) or perhaps in the time of Sodom and Gomorrah (nearly 4,000 years ago).

That’s when a Townsend’s solitaire – a thrush-like bird named centuries later by a British ornithologist – likely swooped down on the Bennett’s mom, picked off a pollinated juniper berry, flew away, and deposited the tree seed at this very location. Jacqueline’s eyes widen at the story.

So did the Bennett Juniper meet expectations?

“Absolutely,” says Michelle, getting into the family SUV for the trip back to the family’s Pinecrest vacation cabin. And their host Ken? “Way beyond expectations,” she declares.

By this time a couple of ATV riders from Turlock have arrived, and Brunges is repeating Bennett Juniper 101 with all the enthusiasm of a first-time teacher.

The few hundred visitors he greets each season are a small crowd compared to the nearly four million that Yosemite National Park hosts annually.  But you don’t get your own personal ranger at Yosemite. The Save the Redwoods League, which cares for 17,000 acres of redwoods in California, believes its lone one-tree preserve is well worth the effort.

“The Bennett Juniper is so special,” says Jessica Neff, head of stewardship projects for the League, and Brunges’ largely absentee boss. “It’s one of the oldest trees in the world. We’re just lucky to have a caretaker who’s passionate about it.”

Neff made the bumpy trek out to see the juniper and its guardian in July for the first time. “It was wonderful to finally meet Ken,” she says. “He’s become a great educator and ambassador for the tree. We couldn’t have a better host.”

Daily visitor counts at the juniper range from two or three on early or late-season weekdays to 50 or more on the busiest of summer weekends. Few come calling after dark, when an eerie quiet prevails. In fact for many of his waking hours, Brunges’ only companions are the tree and his dog, Augie.

He’s had visitors as early as 4:30 a.m. and as late as 11:30 p.m., but most of the time people stop coming by 5, when silence ensues.

“I don’t mind it at all,” Brunges says. “After talking to people, I get time to myself. I read, I explore, I enjoy the solitude.”

Which is more than Maureen Kelley, his most frequent visitor and his partner for nearly 40 years, can say.  “I need more civilization than Ken has out here,” she says. “I feel kind of vulnerable when I’m up here alone.”

So do other friends who have filled in at the Bennett Juniper from time to time. “They tell me they liked it, but couldn’t imagine doing it for a whole summer – let alone 26 summers,” says Brunges.

But he points out that life with the tree is hardly solitary confinement. Thanks to a 20-foot-high tower near his tent, he gets both cell phone and Internet reception. “But you could grow a beard waiting for a download,” he concedes, running a hand through the evidence.

Bennet-JunipeRFN00129Also, during the winter season Brunges makes up for the hours of summer silence as operations manager for the nearby Leland Meadows High Sierra Snowplay Area, where he supervises some 20 employees while scores of sledding children whoop and holler.

Back at the juniper, safety is not an issue. Brunges has never seen a mountain lion, “but I know they’re around.” Bears occasionally sniff around his open-air kitchen, but have done no damage. And not a single human visitor has threatened him or the tree. “I don’t carry a gun,” he shrugs. “I don’t even own one.”

A moment later he remembers a burglary from years ago. “I came back here after my two days off, and a bottle of wine was missing,” Brunges laughs. “But whoever took it left a $5 bill and, really, that’s all it was worth.”

Chris Holt, the day’s third Turlocker, rumbles up to the juniper in his pickup truck, scans the area, and says the solitude wouldn’t bother him a bit.

“I could definitely do Ken’s job for the rest of my life,” he proclaims. “He’s a lucky man.”

Brunges is 67, an age when many of his fellow baby boomers are opting for RVs, golf courses and senior discounts at Jeb’s.

“Retirement?” he says. “If I did that, the League would stop paying me. And I’d probably be here anyway, so I really don’t see any point in it. I think I might be good for another 26 years.”

 Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2014 23:00
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