a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The floors of my house, built in 1852, are longleaf pine scarred by feet, by errant coals from a woodstove, by the jaws of termites, but they have held these 165 years without even a subfloor to support them. The narrow spaces between the boards contain the dirt of ages, packed hard as clay. Longleaf timber has incredible strength due to its slow growth, which creates dense heartwood. It has been compared to cast iron and steel, but its strength is only one of its superpowers. Author Janisse Ray, who hails from Georgia, deep in longleaf country, writes that longleaf heartwood is “so heavy and thick with resins that saw blades bounce away from it.” Even if the saw can manage to cut the wood, the resin will clog up the blade. It’s as though the trees are imbued with mythical abilities. To clear millions of acres of longleaf pine was a Herculean effort, a battle between foes equally determined. One sent roots down so deep no man could dig them out. The other used every tool available, including the blood and sweat of slaves.
Longleaf pine floors are almost nonexistent in newer houses because longleaf forests cover a fraction of the land they once did. In the 1600s, the pine’s range extended from Virginia, south to Florida, and then followed the curve of the Gulf Coast to Texas. Those ninety million acres of longleaf pine have dwindled to 3.4 million acres, but the region of America east of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon line would not exist as I know it if not for the longleaf. This single tree species enabled colonization, settlement, and economic growth. It opened routes to the west. Longleaf pines witnessed history, and deep in their roots, they harbor stories of all the ways humans have mistreated the landscape and one another. Longleaf has many stories to tell, stories of beings—including itself—whose voices are not often heard.
In my quest to get to know a tree that is largely gone from Virginia, the state where I live, I proceed circuitously. Since pine straw often comes from longleaf pines, I stop one day at Southern States farm co-op to see if they have any. I pay at the counter, and then drive around back to the loading bays, where, often, a man named James loads up my bales of straw and my potting soil. James takes a forklift down to the lower barn. When he comes back with my pine straw, I say, “Do you know what kind of pine it is?” He stares down at it. “What kind you want?” “I don’t need any particular kind,” I say. “But I read it’s sometimes longleaf pine.” James pulls a few needles out of the bale. “Looks like long leaves to me,” he says matter-of-factly. When I get home, I pull some of the straw out and bring it inside to compare with my field guide. Three needles per bundle. Twisting. I measure the samples at twelve inches, too long to be slash pine. I feel deeply satisfied by this knowledge.
But the straw is not a tree. To see the trees themselves, I drive east on US Route 460, which runs from Kentucky through the entire state of Virginia. I pass through towns stuck in time. At the side of the road, remnants of cotton dot the empty fields. The Melody Inn’s bright retro sign reads VACANCY, and the marquee has lost so many letters that its message is indecipherable. I pass misfit tourist attractions centered around peanuts. Nut-pun-filled billboards for Virginia Diner, “A legend in a nutshell since 1929,” pop up now and then. The highway, once a popular route to the beach, has not found another purpose since being superseded by I-64 to the north, but it is the highway that leads to the nearest stand of longleaf pines.
There is barely a sign marking the longleaf restoration plot I have come to see. When I finally find it, the trees are not towering or majestic, as I’d imagined them. Instead, probably about ten years old, they look like Joshua trees or some other desert plant. Most of the trees stand at human height, friendly and unassuming. The ocean of pines is quiet and otherworldly. I see deer tracks and scat laced with white fur. Prickly pears and reindeer lichen sprawl across the bright, sandy soil.
In early life, longleaf pines are nothing more than bristly leaves sticking up out of the ground. Whisk brooms. Feather dusters. The needles grow up to seventeen inches long, and in the mass of needles, the bud lies protected. This is why the longleaf pine thrives in fire: the long needles burn, but they direct the flames away from the important part of the plant. Fire eliminates competitors and lets the longleaf grow with plenty of light. The cultural aversion to fire, which developed as America became more settled, contributed to the demise of the longleaf.
There are no untouched stands of longleaf left in Virginia. This has been essentially true since the close of the nineteenth century. The longleaf is more closely associated with the states south of Virginia, especially North Carolina, whose residents are called Tar Heels because of the state’s long history of gathering resin to make tar from the longleaf. The French botanist François Michaux wrote in the early 1800s that 70 percent of the Carolina lowlands were longleaf pine. “These trees, frequently twenty feet distant from each other,” he said, “are not damaged by the fire that they make here annually in the woods, at the commencement of spring, to burn the grass and other plants that the frost has killed.” The annual burns made it easier to hunt, encouraged new growth of longleaf, and helped to control ticks and chiggers. It was Native Americans who first burned the longleaf forests, and burns were part of cracker culture in the Deep South of Alabama and Georgia. Fires, along with the sparse branches characteristic of the longleaf, meant open spaces and a clear understory, something hard to imagine now, when people rarely allow a forest to burn.
Here in Virginia, the longleaf grew in the Great Dismal Swamp region, which creates a bridge with North Carolina. Much longleaf habitat in the area has been developed and built over, but before European settlers came, the Great Dismal Swamp spanned over a million acres, many of them covered in longleaf. It was not only vast but also impassable—to all but the most determined.
Richard Grant reports in the Smithsonian that some Native Americans made their homes in the Great Dismal Swamp in order to escape “the colonial frontier.” A short time later, slaves began to hide in the swamp, too. Before the Civil War, the swamp was a stop on the Underground Railroad. It was home to those for whom a place called the Great Dismal Swamp offered a better life than the one they knew. For two hundred years, they were among the many whom the longleaf harbored and protected. The people who lived in the swamp built a society almost completely cut off from the outside world, dependent upon food and materials that could be found nearby. The fugitive slaves were called maroons, which Grant says probably came from the Spanish for “something wild and defiant.” They chose a communal system of labor, the opposite of the slavery they had fled. The longleaf witnessed the lives of the maroons. To some extent, it enabled their freedom and escape by providing the ecosystem in which the communities lived and ate and breathed. The longleaf, too, was wild and defiant in its way.
That was not its only human trait. Its sap, or resin, like the blood in our own circulatory systems, kept the tree alive. But, unlike human blood, longleaf resin was valuable for making naval stores—tar, pitch, turpentine, and rosin (distilled resin)—which the British navy badly needed. The navy used pitch to coat rope and sails to make them waterproof. Pitch protected the hulls of the boats and made them watertight. Longleaf pine has more resin than other pines, which made it the choice tree for naval stores. The only way to get the sap out in any quantity was to make deep cuts into the tree. Boxing, the pre-1900 method of obtaining longleaf resin, involved hacking a wedge-shaped cut into the base of the trunk and inserting a metal box to catch the sap. Boxing was done not just once per tree but sometimes four times, once on each side of the tree’s trunk. The practice eventually killed the tree. Later, resin harvesters used a more sustainable method, the Herty system, cutting angled slashes in the trunk. When one slash stopped oozing sap into the collection tin, another could be cut above it. In time, a tree might have many slashes layered up its trunk, creating a “catface” pattern, like cat whiskers. These old trees still stand in the woods, staring out with their thousands of faces carved by thousands of hands.
The longleaf seems to me a tree of empathy. Humans have boxed it, scarred it, catfaced it, cut it, burned it, and built with it. Most of the humans who did these things were African-American slaves or prisoners. The work was difficult and dangerous. Workers performed their tasks in brutal temperatures, enduring gnats, mosquitoes, chiggers, and flies. The hours were long. Longleaf historian Lawrence Earley writes of one slave who ran away to escape because he would rather have died than continue the labor of producing turpentine from longleaf pine. These two beings—trees and coerced humans—must have said to one another as they listened to the sound of axes, saws, their own voices: I feel your pain; I understand you; I hear you. Our lives have been stolen, but our spirits survive.
Botanist Charles Mohr wrote in 1897 that many North Carolina longleaf pines were “bled” for over twenty years. After a reprieve, they were bled again. “Such old martyrs of the turpentine orchard are unfit for lumber,” he said, “but, impregnated as they are with resin, are used for piling and for posts of great durability.” I imagine the life of these trees, their tired old age when it is hard to stand. When they have given and given and given their entire lives, they give even more.
I like to imagine the tree, tall and strong, throwing off the chains of servitude, insisting on freedom. I like to imagine the longleaf as John Henry, the African-American hero who is the subject of many songs. John Henry’s real identity is unknown, but historian Scott Reynolds Nelson presents evidence that John Henry was a prisoner in Virginia, leased out as labor for blasting mountains away for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway tunnels. John Henry was said to work faster than the steam hammer machine, but unlike the machines, the human workers often died of lung disease from the blast dust. This is probably how John Henry died. Nelson writes that many of the songs about John Henry are upbeat, but that the lyrics are, in fact, often filled with pain and supernatural elements that suggest “John Henry died but still lived in the ground.” Nelson goes on to connect the supernatural aspect of the songs to West African tradition, where “those who had died in terrible or surprising circumstances still inhabited the underground.” The narrative of the longleaf bears similar elegiac and supernatural elements.
Peter Wohlleben, in his book The Hidden Life of Trees, offers thoughts that lead me to believe felled longleaf pines may still be alive under the ground, their ancient roots communicating with one another and also sending echoes of the past humming up to us if we are willing to listen. Wohlleben was shocked to discover ancient beech stumps still displaying signs that they were alive. He hypothesizes that surrounding trees were sending nutrients to the roots of the felled trees, lending assistance as we might to an injured human being. Is it not possible that some longleaf stumps, scarred by boxing, felled by loggers, could have life in them, deep underground, supported by other trees?
Many trees, at the beginning of their lives, aim for the sky. They put out branches and leaves. Depending on the species, they might grow as tall as a human—or taller—in the first year. The longleaf chooses the unassuming path, growing in a manner almost the opposite. For the first seven years of its life, it aims downward. Charles Mohr writes that, after two years, the longleaf taproot extends up to three feet into the ground, but the stem is “scarcely 1 1/2 inches long, with an increase in diameter hardly perceptible.” The longleaf’s roots grow laterally, too, meaning that its hidden life is vastly more extensive than its visible life. By maturity, the trees’ taproots extend eight to twelve feet below ground, deeper than the roots of other pines. Longleaf lateral roots can extend as far as seventy-five feet from the trunk. The root system means that the longleaf can reach deeper for water in times of drought, in spells of heat. Its deep roots hold it to the ground when fierce winds come. Hurricane Katrina felled or caused extensive damage to the south’s economically important loblolly and slash pine forests, but the longleaf stands were barely touched. In a time of climate change, the tree may be one of our most resilient species. It bends but doesn’t break in wind, stands strong in fire, drought, and flood. It resists beetle infestations, which are increasingly prevalent. With each degree of temperature rise, it’s more valuable. The longleaf earns its moniker “the phoenix tree” because when fire sweeps through, it seems to burn everything in its path. The longleaf, with roots deep and needles long, grows again a short time later, as if to say that fire is nothing compared to having faces carved into its trunk. Hurricanes are nothing compared to the willful blade of the saw.
In early America, longleaf was an important economic and industrial resource. Charles Mohr wrote that the longleaf was excellent “for masts and spars; in civil engineering, for the building of bridges, viaducts, trestlework, and for supports in the construction of buildings.” The trees left after timber harvest were used to power blast furnaces for iron. Nineteenth-century publications about longleaf cite the weight of its wood, the height of its timbers, the price of its products, the number of railroad ties used in a year, the number of cattle or pigs who can graze on an acre, the number of longleaf mills, the amount of lumber processed by each mill, the rapid decrease of longleaf acreage proportional to the increase in years since Europeans first settled longleaf territory.
Captain John Smith, when he landed on the shores of Virginia in 1606, was impressed by the “great plentie of Pines and Firres.” The longleaf pine had not been botanically named in Smith’s time—it was named by British botanist Philip Miller in 1768—but we can say with some certainty that the species of pine Smith found was Pinus palustris because it was useful for pitch and tar. The longleaf, with its high production rate of resin, inspired greed and capitalistic imagination.
In the early days of logging longleaf, the trees often had to be removed from the woodlots one at a time because they were so heavy. They could only be transported three or four miles over land, which meant they had to be within that distance of a river so that they could be floated downstream. River transport, however, was unpredictable due to seasonal flows. The expansion of railroads dramatically increased the capacity for transporting longleaf timber.
Decimation of longleaf forests followed the progression of railroads as they were being laid—Virginia to North Carolina, and then to the southernmost states. Sawmills lined the railroad like train depots. The railroad cars themselves, and the ties that held the tracks together, were longleaf. Railroad ties, “must be all heartwood and free from blemish,” Mohr wrote. The preference for such high quality wood created a great deal of waste. A mile of railroad required 3,000 ties. Mohr added this up: “construction of the 3,240 miles of railroad traversing the forest of longleaf Pine east of the Mississippi River [required] nearly 10,000,000 ties,” a quantity requiring replacement approximately every six years. Imagine the money to be made meeting such demand. Longleaf was akin to gold or oil.
In 1852, when my house was built, there was already a railroad to carry my floors from the longleaf part of the state almost to my door. Ecological historian Cecil Frost estimates that 1.5 million acres of Virginia might once have contained longleaf pine forests. In 1852 the Civil War had not yet wracked the nation, northern timber supplies had not yet been exhausted, and the railroad had not reached the deep woods of Georgia and Alabama.
Longleaf allowed the construction of the railroad, and the railroad in turn allowed access to more longleaf. “By 1880,” Frost writes, “all commercial timber had been removed from lands within a few miles of streams and railroads.” Transit corridors (river and rail) enabled environmental destruction. Even if the railroad had disappeared, one might have charted its route based upon where longleaf had been decimated. The sea, too, both depended upon longleaf and contributed to its demise. Longleaf provided the materials needed for British ships, then American ships. These ships carried longleaf timber and products to the Old World. All these processes enabled a cycle of economic expansion and longleaf ecosystem contraction. Longleaf not only built the South, but also advanced the entire nation.
The longleaf supply once seemed inexhaustible, but even in 1897, Mohr warned, “The greatest danger threatening the existence of the forests of Longleaf Pine must be ascribed to the agency of man, since their destruction is caused chiefly by the reckless manner in which they are depleted without heed to recuperation.” It was not only humans who destroyed longleaf. The settlers grazed their pigs, cattle, goats, and sheep in stands of longleaf. Pigs equalled or exceeded humans in number in the early years of America, and it took over ten acres of longleaf pine to support each pig. Pigs ate the seedlings of the longleaf pines, rooting them up as they went. The practice of using longleaf woods for cattle grazing lasted well into the twentieth century. Longleaf cattle range practices may have shaped the American west by establishing traditions of open range grazing, one of only many ways the longleaf affected human culture.
John McPhee’s 1967 book The Pine Barrens paints a portrait of a whole way of life, a unique culture, built around the ecosystem of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Those who weave their lives with the pines forge a livelihood built upon “sphagnum in the spring, berries in the summer, coaling when the weather is cold” instead of driving to nearby cities to work in offices or service industries. The longleaf pinelands of the Deep South were—and perhaps could still be—similar. Georgia settlers developed a whole way of life around the longleaf ecosystem: pine straw in the fall; game hunting when it’s cold; grazing cattle in the summer; selective timber harvest for high grade wood products; forage in the form of fruits, nuts, and gopher tortoises (“cracker chicken”). Many places in the south already have longleaf written into their identities. The book Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See reports that southern names like “Pitch Kettle Road, Lightwood Swamp, Tar Pit Swamp, Tar Landing, Tar Bay, and Pitch and Tar Swamp” mean that the place’s history is bound up with longleaf, even if the ways of life and the economies built around longleaf are gone. The place names say, “This tree was important.” And it still is.
I often wonder what the southern landscape was like before highways and tract homes, before clearcuts and invasive weeds, when longleaf pine stands were as vast as prairie. I cannot experience these trees the way someone three hundred years ago would have, but the longleaf so impressed early settlers and travellers that we have a good historical record of the species and its ecosystem.
William Bartram described longleaf territory in the Carolinas in the language of Romanticism: “an open forest of stately pines (Pinus palustris) through which appears the extensive savanna, the secure range of the swift roebuck…which gradually widened to the sea coast, and gave me an unconfined prospect, whilst the far distant sea coast islands, like a coronet, limited the hoary horizon.” Lawrence Earley notes that Bartram’s writing influenced Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Therefore, by association, the longleaf contributed to the writing of some of the most well-known Romantic verse.
By the twentieth century, longleaf forest was no longer the territory of Romantic poets or botanists. Instead, it belonged to the military, which liked longleaf forest because it was open, a good environment for training soldiers and testing aircraft maneuvers. One of the last remaining stands of longleaf pine is in the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama, located on the former army site Fort McClellan. During World War II, Fort McClellan housed prisoners of war from Italy and Germany. The trees witnessed human captivity. They witnessed Japanese-Americans helping to train troops in the fighting techniques of Japanese soldiers. They witnessed the advent of chemical warfare when the fort was used to train the Chemical Corps from the 1950s through the 1970s. The grounds were designated a Superfund site, and are still being cleaned of toxic waste.
In 1940, the War Department took over 384,000 acres of Choctawhatchee National Forest in Florida to use for gunnery training. Supposedly, the land was to be restored to national forest use when it was no longer needed. Eighty years on, it is still Eglin Air Force Base. The longleaf forest there must be filled with spent munitions, shrapnel, and injured trees. The gopher tortoise, a species that relies upon the longleaf ecosystem, must wonder at these shards of metal, at the blistering noise, the inhuman vibrations in the earth.
Longleaf pine is often called heart pine. It has a giving character. I can hear the tree saying the words of Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In addition to sheltering fugitive slaves, longleaf has harbored life and welcomed diversity: a hundred species of birds, thirty-six mammals, and seventy-two reptiles and amphibians. It would take many seasons to count all the plant species the longleaf supports. It creates a unique ecosystem because it is itself unlike any other tree.
Perhaps young longleafs, connecting deep underground with the still-living roots of their forebears, hold all the stories their species has witnessed, stories of separation, loss, death, and finally freedom. While the march of construction and new highways tries to erase POW camps and traces of slavery, the longleaf remembers. Among these trees, I hear voices and stories. In the brightness of white sand, the vivid green of feathery needles, I see the many textures and colors of life. I crouch on the ground and pretend I’m two inches tall among the lichens, the mosses, the white dots of mustard flowers, the sprawling, thorny cactus leaves, which remind me that there are so many ways of living, of surviving, and this tree has observed and recorded them all. It is a tree of experience, animal, plant, and mineral. With its faces young and old, living and seemingly dead, it is beauty in a time of ugliness, history in a time of forgetting, respite from suffering, a cathedral of light and life.