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TWENTY SOMETHING | The pursuit of happiness in the new year

Don Currey was a 30-year-old graduate student when he was responsible for cutting down the world's oldest tree.

A geography student at the University of North Carolina, Don wanted to better understand Ice-Age glaciology by examining bristlecone trees. In the summer of 1964, he was in a grove of bristlecones on Wheeler Peak Mountain in Nevada when his tree corer got stuck in a tree.

A park ranger helped him remove the instrument by cutting down the tree. Don counted its rings and eventually realized, much to his dismay, that the tree was 4,844 years old — what was then considered the oldest tree on the planet.

The mistake advanced geographers' understanding of longevity, which had been correlated with size of tree — the redwoods of California, for instance. Diminutive bristlecone pines — trees that peak at just 20 feet — are, it turns out, among the oldest trees in the world.

They live so long because, even if a large portion of a bristlecone is damaged by erosion or fire, small strips of living bark, which one researcher dubbed "life lines," keep the tree alive. A mere, two-inch-wide strip of bark supports all of the tree's foliage.

Despite severe and harsh conditions, the bristlecone endures over time.

It's the same with people.

As I look ahead to 2017, I've been thinking of history in my life — both as a Catholic and a member of my family. The communion of saints feels more alive to me than ever before — almost hauntingly so, yet comforting — the canonized ones and my ancestors, stories of resilience and grace and the life lines that sustained, despite severe and harsh conditions. They are my "life lines."

I've resolved to study them this year and glean their stories and songs. I want to capture oral histories of those still living and to read up on those no longer here. I'm feeling blessed and strengthened by my history. I want to dig deeper.

To begin, I'm reading Robert Ellsberg's book "The Saints' Guide To Happiness," which frames that secular pursuit, an unalienable American right, in spiritual terms, showing how the saints' capacity for goodness and love, ultimately, made them happy.

My biggest takeaway is the book's message about learning to see and learning to love. "Our whole business in this life is to restore to health the eyes of the heart, whereby God may be seen," St. Augustine wrote.

That's what happened to Thomas Merton, on an errand in the shopping district of Louisville, Ky.

"I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs...," Merton wrote as recounted in Ellsberg's book. "It was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God's eyes."

What more could we hope for in the new year than to share in that vision?

Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of SisterStory.org. 

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