Somewhere in the high desert of eastern Nevada, a few turns off Route 50 — “the loneliest road in America” — a station wagon sat parked by the side of the highway. Before it lounged a young couple on red lawn chairs. A crudely painted wooden sign on the vehicle’s roof advertised: “Snow Globes $20.”
But this wasn’t standard-issue tourist bait. Each globe had been created by Los Angeles photographer and conceptual artist Jeff Weiss, and each contained an ethereal white rendering of a gnarled bristlecone pine that grew for roughly 5,000 years on the eastern fringes of the Great Basin.
The tree, called Prometheus, took root at the dawn of the Bronze Age, centuries before the ancient Egyptians began construction on the pyramids at Giza. It outlasted the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, European colonialism, the Mexican-American War and the creation of the atom bomb. But it didn’t survive the chainsaw that felled it on Aug. 7, 1964, at the request of a scientist who wanted to study the tree’s rings.
Weiss is obsessed with trees and the histories they hold; he has photographed them, created sculptures from them and is the kind of guy who will pull over on the side of a highway to examine unfamiliar specimens. (One afternoon, I ring him on his cellphone for a few follow-up questions. The connection is beyond terrible. “Where are you?” I shout. “Where else?” comes the staticky reply. “Looking at trees!” Weiss is standing in the middle of a sequoia forest.)
His obsession with Prometheus, however, has trumped all others.