On the Trail of the Longleaf Pine…

Woodlands have long held a special place in my psyche.  I know not why, it is interesting to ponder the reasons, time-consuming to speculate on the origins of that draw.  I’m not going to get deep into a psychological assessment or even dwell on the fact – I like woods and forests and there’s an end ! The historical management of our native woodlands is an aspect of my interest as is the  concern for the flora and fauna that exists within.  There’s no doubt we have squandered our woodland heritage, we have abandoned the age-old traditions of using native timber to manufacture and build.  Foreign timber is, so we are told, cheaper and often of better quality but surely that is a narrow and cowardly view ?  I have been involved in trying to get land-owners, farmers in particular, to manage their woodlands for longer than I care to remember.  The basic fact is that unless someone wants the timber produced from the management – which in effect means the controlled harvesting of species in the woodland – then it is an un-economic enterprise. The demise of well managed woodlands and the century old afforestation of uplands with non-native conifer has had a devastating effect on issues such as carbon capture and water quality to say nothing of the loss of habitat to so many of our native plants and animals.  The fact that grant aid, through numerous schemes over past decades, has been targeted at such management merely shows that the problem is not imagined, it is a scientifically proven issue. Now this post is not about the problems of Welsh nor even British woodlands, that is an ongoing issue which I will continue to champion.  No, this article is about a similar issue that ‘we’ hold responsibility for, in a land that we first ‘invaded’ over 400 years ago.

Range of the Long Leaf Pine

The whole of the green area was once the land of the Long Leaf Pine forest and all the animals and plants and hence Native Americans that it supported.

This particular part of the Globe, this particular parcel of Colonial pillage occurred over a short period really, just a few hundred years during which time millions of years of evolution was halted, extinguished even, all because of a particular tree. The south eastern corner of the United States was the region in which the vast forests of the Long Leaf Pine reigned supreme.  From Texas through to the Virginia lowlands in a great arc that consumed most of Louisiana Georgia, the Carolinas and Florida, the great trees dominated.  Once the first settlers discovered the endless bounty of the forests the end was nigh.  The fact that the trees grew tall and straight to heights of 100 feet and more meant they were ruthlessly felled to provide masts for ships.  The fact that they also contained turpentine doomed them further, the nature of the close grained timber meant they were hugely strong and hence desirable in all manner of construction projects.  The coming of the railroads – themselves massive consumers of timber for the tracks and engines – opened up access to both the forests and the markets.  “Railroads were to Pines what they were to Buffalo, the means to extinction” (Janisse Ray). By the end of the nineteenth century those great forests were all but gone and with them the flora and fauna.  Forests that had stood for millenia, which had seen man exist in harmony for much of that time, were gone, destroyed forever.  Of the 85 million acres of Longleaf Pine within the area of its range – a total area of 156 million hence over 50% – only about 2 million acres remain and of that only 10 thousand acres are virgin forest.

Longleaf Pine remnant forest

This is how all of that land would have looked when the first settlers arrived.

Now you may be wondering why I have picked on this particular piece of habitat destruction, after all I could have stuck a pin anywhere in the map of the world and a similar issue would, most likely, pop up.  It is one of those inexplicable events, a coming together of a number of occurrences, small of themselves but together capable of a huge impact.  That huge impact is, in a way, a microcosm of the problems we have nationally, internationally, globally, it hit me between the eyes with such a force I haven’t yet fully understood it myself. The awakening came when I was given a book to read on my recent visit to South Carolina.  I had travelled determined to re-read Faulk’s Bird Song as the centenary of the Great War looms. I had forgotten what an immense piece of literature it is, forgotten how it grips the mind and urges the next session of reading to come quickly.  I duly finished it and picked up the proffered book.  If I tell you that in the first session I got through nearly 80 pages you will understand its impact.

Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

This book mesmerised me and got me all wound about the Long Leaf Pine – as if I haven’t got enough to concern me already !

It is an autobiographical account of a childhood and an awakening that flows fast and furiously, flicking the reader from the abject poverty and dignity of a post-war Southern childhood as the daughter of a scrap dealer (Junk yard) to the awful tragedy of the demise of the Long Leaf Pine forests.  In essence it is two books in one except that the growth of the mind of the child, out of which comes a great Conservationist, is inextricably intertwined with her awakening to the devastation which had taken place. I’m not  going to give you some kind of a review of the book – it’s cheap enough and is available in Libraries so go and read it !!  You won’t be sorry.  What it opened my eyes to was a part of the history of the Southern States that had been totally unknown. The remaining stands are mostly contained within protected zones of conservation or National Parks such as the Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee in Florida or, interestingly, within the area of a number of military bases which are dotted throughout the relevant Sates.  For instance about 5 thousand acres stand within the bounds of Elgin Air Force base also in Florida.  Ms Ray eloquently leads us into that loss, a loss which she seems to feel in her soul.  “Maybe a vision (of the original Longleaf Pine Forest) has been endowed to me through genes (because I seem to remember their endlessness)” (p65).  I think it is writing of a genre capable of illuminating something in our own gene memory.  I found myself drawn into her passion and her pathos.  A recognition that something within the landscape, the forest landscape in this instance, is locked up within us, only to be revealed at the behest of some unexpected prompt. “I drink old-growth forest in like water.  This is the homeland that built us.  Here I walk shoulder to shoulder with history – my history.  I am in the presence of something ancient and venerable, perhaps of time itself, its unhurried passing marked by intensity and stolidity, each year purged by fire.  I can see my place as human in a natural order more grand, whole and functional than I’ve ever witnessed and I am humbled, not frightened”.  (p69) For me that simple statement encapsulates much of my own unspoken senses in the hills and enclosures in which I work.  For sure just being in an ancient woodland is a transcendental experience for me too.  The terrible loss of the great forests of the South and Janisse Ray’s writing mirrors much of what occurred here centuries ago.  Indeed the very drive to emigrate to that New World of promised opportunity and wealth was partly tied up in the problems of a diminishing agricultural output here.  Ironic therefore to realise that within a century much of the fertility and diversity of the vast forested lands, not only of the Longleaf States but right through the eastern seaboard, had been so depleted as to be unable to sustain life. An ecology which had sustained the Native Americans for thousands of years, was  destroyed by the introduction of European models of agriculture and the inevitable slash and burn policy which not only destroyed the forests and all they supported but at once rendered the ground susceptible to depletion and erosion. “In no place during the ante-bellum period (that hundred or so years between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War) was it easier for the Celts to maintain their traditional pastoral ways than in these great forests that covered the old South”.   (Mc Whinney p56) Sadly that pastoralism outgrew the very land that sustained it and as the population grew, particularly in the urban areas, demands for the resources of the forests provided quick prosperity for those who owned the land or exploited it.  No-one ever considered the “Endless Forests” would one day be gone.  “Another chapter in the sorry tale of the unbridled exploitation of our Nation’s natural resources”. (Ray p155) “Our relationship with the land wasn’t one of give and return.  The land itself has been the victim of social dilemmas – racial injustice, lack of education and dire poverty.  It was over tilled, eroded, cut, littered, polluted, treated as a commodity, sometimes the only one, and not as a living thing.  Most people worried about getting by and when getting by meant using the land we used it. When getting by meant ignoring the land we ignored it”. ( Ray p165) The problem of course is not merely one of the loss of the noble pine.  The ecology of the Longleaf forests was so interwoven, so interdependent that removing one element negatively, nay disasterously, impacted on all the other constituent pieces.  The natural forest saw trees spread out in an unordered fashion, light was able to penetrate to the understory, plants and animals lived long lives in the light of that forest.

Grass stage Longleaf Pine

The baby Longleaf – the Grass stage – looks just like a young Pampas Grass. Fire is its friend !

The one thing that separates the Longleaf from other pines is its need for ‘FIRE’ !!  Only through regular burning can natural regeneration occur, and therein lies one of the big problems.  Humans don’t want fires raging around them !  Of course the Native Americans used fire in the forests to keep the under-story clear so that hunting was made a little easier.  Through fire the highly pyrophyte Pinus Palustris becomes the dominant species.  The other element in this fire dependent ecosystem is the Wire grass which grows throughout the forest floor – Carolina Wire-grass, Aristida stricta, in the northern zone and Southern Wire-grass, Aristida beyrichiana, in the south of the zone.  This coarse grass provides combustible material to speed the fire through the forest without allowing it to burn too deeply.  In Britain farmers and game estates use the same principle, a not too windy day which causes a quick burn across the surface rather than burning into the peat which is disastrous for the heather and grasses as well as the peat.

Now fire and animals don’t go well together, unless at a BBQ !  One animal that has suffered catastrophic decline as a result of the demise of the Longleaf forests was also the animal that provided ‘fire-shelter’ for other species which lived in the ecosystem.  The Gopher Tortoise is a keystone species, as a burrowing animal it allowed other animals, particularly the southern Salamander and snakes, to share its burrow during flash burns.  It would be interesting to know what the warning signs were which caused animals to run underground.  In nature the fires would have been started by the violent lightning that accompanies the huge southern thunderstorms.   The ecosystem supports many plants and animals, especially carnivorous plants and orchids as well as the really rare Red Cockaded Woodpecker.  I was fortunate to see TWO of these fabulous birds on my visit to Congaree Swamp National Park in January 2012.

Congaree Swamp Red Cockaded Woodpecker

Can you see it ? It is there, hiding on the ground, this Red Cockaded Woodpecker was the first thing we saw in Congaree !

In total within the Pine Savannas there are 27 Federal Endangered species and 100 species of concern.  Not surprisingly there are, at last, serious concern and effort being put into research and protection of the remaining stands.  Interestingly these Longleaf Forests and the ecosystem they support are viewed as being very suitable for adapting to any Global warming issues !

Now I have probably given a very inadequate account or description of the Forests and the issues.  Apologies, but my intention was to merely report something that had become an important element in my ‘education’ about the Southern Sates of America.  The whole question of the loss and conservation efforts became a little more personal for me too.  In one of those strange events, almost another case of ‘synchronisity’, the Longleaf Forests cropped up in two un-related parts of my recent excursion.

Regenerating Longleaf forest.

This is a naturally regenerated Longleaf stand showing the spaced nature of the growth and the important wire grass.

Firstly, you may recall my comrade waller joined the Ministry to conduct the wedding of two of her longest and closest friends.  The bride, the delightful Kyle Palmquist, has just completed her Doctorate and her area of study has been, for five years and more, the plant diversity within Longleaf Pine forests.  Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to meet up and discuss her findings face to face.  Her CV is staggering and her ‘defence’ (a presentation of her Thesis findings) makes fascinating reading (she can be found on-line).  I saw her briefly the day after her wedding in her beach house on Folly Beach near Charleston, long before I began reading Janisse Ray’s book.  How I would have revelled in an evening with dear Kyle after I had read it.

The last and perhaps most unreal coincidence in the whole story came as I was engrossed in the story.  We were invited to go and view a new mansion that was being built by a friend of my host’s cousin.  It was a huge stone edifice in a huge number of acres.  I can’t describe the building or show you pictures but one of the unbelievable discoveries was the stable block.  I thought it looked like a Medieval Tithe barn and when I mentioned this to the designer/builder he said that was what he had researched !  What was even more remarkable was the timber, huge beams of what looked, to me, like Pitch Pine.  No, it was Longleaf Pine.  In another quirk of coincidence the great baulks had been recovered from an old cotton mill which was being demolished in the very town we passed through on the way to the bridge building site, Spartanburg.

The strength of the slow growing pine trees made it the timber of choice when building the huge 19th century mills which were built throughout the southern States after the Civil War.  This explosion in industrial building ended once and for all the Longleaf domination of southern forests.  To see actual beams of the timber was unbelievable for me and it was immediately apparent why it was such a capable building material.  Slow growth results in tight grain and immense tensile strength.  The tree grew straight and tall, ideal for building wide multi-storey mills.  To see this example of ‘building salvage’ was a privilege and I have to congratulate the owner and particularly the designer for giving a third life to the magnificent beams.  Clearly my enthusiasm for his buildings and the timber impressed the owner, he gave both of us a huge block of the stuff !!

I was lost for words and I hope, in my disbelief and gratitude, I thanked him sufficiently – albeit he had loads of it lying around ! – for a gift that left me SO excited.  Ridiculous I know, getting all worked up about a piece of wood, an exceptionally heavy piece of wood at that.  The 35 cms x 35 cms x 10 cms (14″x14″x4″) weighs in at 15lbs !!

Block of Longleaf timber

My very own block of Longleaf Pine, how chuffed was I !? Now then, will it fit in my luggage and is it legal !?

The block I was given had been cut from a tall beam, it in turn was hewn from a 300 year old tree, a tree that had just sprouted when de Soto was beginning his expedition back in the early 1500s.  It is such a precious piece of wood, to me anyhow.

The gift of that simple block of wood gave me more than immense pleasure.  I had in my mind that I would give it to Kyle as a belated wedding present but my host felt she would not want it.  I then turned my thoughts to whether I could actually take it back to Wales with me.  Weighing in at over a stone (15 lb to be exact) it certainly meant re-arranging my luggage.  I had already decided to leave some items of work-wear, not least a heavy pair of old boots that had worked their last shift.  I had also unloaded a few wooden items, gifts to Whitney from Dai-it-is and my old neighbour Bryn who had given her an ash axe helve that he had himself fashioned with a draw-knife and spokeshave – my delight was nothing compared to hers when he gave her that piece of Welsh heritage !  My bag had been ever so slightly over weight at Heathrow and I estimated that I had shed a good few pounds, but not 15 !!  Also I had acquired some items, like special clothing and camping accessories, as well as a stunning early Christmas present ! (An outdoor sweater from the incredible outdoor shop REI – thanks boss !!).

I variously thought I could get it in, then I thought there was no chance, then again I thought maybe it was possible.  Eventually I decided to go for it – notwithstanding I wasn’t absolutely sure it was an allowed item, certainly bringing such a piece of wood into the U.S.A. wouldn’t be allowed.  It was suggested that polishing it might be a good idea.  With much re-arranging of items, including  two very full carry-on bags, I got the check-in luggage weight down to 51lbs and the kind Delta check-in lady let it through.  To cut a long story short, it arrived in London and is now amongst my prize possessions.

Finally, and another strange encounter in the saga of the Longleaf, on a walk through the attractive grounds of Furman Universityh in Greenville aimed at working up an appetite, what did we encounter …

Sapling Longleaf

A ‘baby’ yet, but this is the real deal, a Longleaf Pine up close and personal !

In an action packed trip I got immersed in the culture and geography of those Carolina States.  I read as much as I could, I learned more of the terrible years of Slavery and the Civil War.  I almost completed watching Ken Burn’s series on the Civil War and came back with two interesting books on the subject courtesy of Mr Brown (and his uncanny ability at finding items at the world famous Pickens Flea Market) an event we should all know more about as it defines who and what the United States of America is.  I was treated as an honoured guest and I hope my Ambassadorial skills were a match for the hospitality of those kind, generous folk.  Judging by the numbers threatening to come here next year, I did fine !!  For now Welshwaller is back in the rain and gales of Mid Wales, and wishing Y’ALL heartfelt Season’s Greetings.

I just felt altogether attached to that intriguing State ....

I just felt altogether attached to that intriguing State ….

Nadolig Llawen 2013.  Have fun and I’ll catch you in 2014 !!

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One Response to “On the Trail of the Longleaf Pine…”

  1. nik & hayd xx Says:

    Most wonderful colourful descriptions and history lesson of those amazing pines, how lucky are you being able to take care of a 300 year old lump? Polish it !absolutely NO maybe an oil or wax, don’t you dare put your coffee cup on it! x

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