If Ponce de León sailed far enough north along the Florida coast in his 1513 exploratory voyage, he may have glimpsed one of the world’s great forests. We don’t know for sure.
We can be certain, however, that Pedro Menéndez de Avilés encountered the vast and magnificent stands of ancient longleaf pines when he commandeered the Indian village of Seloy in 1565 to use the site for his new Spanish settlement, St. Augustine.
Longleaf covered 90 million acres when Menéndez arrived, an enormous fork from the sinkholes of central Florida to the pine woods of east Texas to the Dismal Swamp in southern Virginia. Growing as tall as 15-story buildings, the trees stood in widely spaced stands with an open, grassy understory, kept clear of most other trees by periodic wildfires.
A mature longleaf pine is as nearly indestructible as a tree can be. Thick bark protects the tree from fire, while a huge root system can suck adequate moisture and nutrients from soil too limited in both to support competitors. The South’s sweltering summers do not bother the longleaf, nor do the freezes and ice storms that touch its realm in winter.
The longleaf’s “skeleton” of heartwood - the dense resinous interior of the tree, where growth stopped long ago - has been compared to iron in tensile strength. Hurricanes that would blow down other trees leave the longleaf unbent. In fact, nothing much short of a direct strike by lightning or a tornado seems likely to end a longleaf’s life. Scientists have calculated that in much of its range, the tree’s life expectancy is around 300 years because, on average, any given tree can expect to be struck by lightning at least once in that time span.
But in the years between the Civil War and World War II, the longleaf encountered an enemy it could not survive: the cross-cut saw. With the native forests of the Northeast and the Great Lakes states depleted, the timber industry moved south, felling mile after mile of longleaf. Longleaf lumber was used in modest British cottages, in Balmoral Castle in Scotland (where it is called pitch pine), in the fleet of the Royal Navy and in the utility poles that carried newly strung electricity and telephone wires across the North American continent.
Clearing the longleaf forest opened Southern land for cotton farming, for golf courses (the longleaf is recalled in the name of Pinehurst, N.C.), and for urban growth across Dixie.
If you drive through the South today, you will pass mile after mile of pine trees, often planted in rows just like corn. Those pines are not longleaf, however. Most of them are loblolly, a humbler species that is prized by growers because in most places it reaches commercial size years earlier than longleaf and because it grows in denser stands. (Some scientists argue that, in the long run, the longleaf is at least as economically productive because it adds more wood at older ages, but the optimum cutting cycle for a longleaf plantation is at least 50 years - twice as long as for loblolly. That’s a long time to keep your inventory tied up in the woods.)
Today, no more than about 3 million acres of Southern land is covered in longleaf, and that includes immature second-growth as well as the little that remains of the ancient old-growth stands.
Until a few weeks ago, I knew nothing about longleaf pine beyond its name and that it is found in the South. I grew up in the Northeast and reached adulthood in the inland Northwest. The trees of my youth were red oaks and sugar maples and northern white pines. As a young man, my favorite tree became the ponderosa pine, the kind you see growing in large tracts in the highlands of northern Arizona or around Western cities like Spokane, Wash. The ponderosa needs less water than the Northwest’s common Douglas fir, and it grows in open, grassy stands where its thick bark resists fire, much like the longleaf.
My longleaf education began with a call to a longtime friend and mentor in Alabama. This gentleman grew up in an agricultural region whose forests were cut down and whose fields were depleted by cotton, erosion and the boll weevil. He believed education and forestry were the keys to revitalizing his community. As a teenager, he planted forests on a piece of land his parents gave him. He then went off to college, became a top executive at a forest products company, and eventually retired to Alabama to manage his own timber holdings and volunteer for conservation organizations.
One of those organizations is the Longleaf Alliance, founded in 1995 to protect what is left of the longleaf forest and restore it where possible. In many places, especially near areas where people live, restoration is impossible because healthy longleaf forests require periodic natural wildfires, which we routinely suppress to protect human life and property.
My friend described the longleaf forest to me and told me where I might find an example, a few hours’ drive from my Florida home. I am planning an outing.
I then went away for a few days. When I returned to my office, a beautiful coffee-table book was waiting for me: “Longleaf, Far As The Eye Can See.” Virtually everything I wrote here about the longleaf forest is something I learned from that book, meaning I learned it from the friend who sent it to me.
I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when the term “conservationist” had fallen out of fashion and was replaced by “environmentalist.” I dealt with many environmentalists in my Montana years, and considered myself one, to an extent. Environmentalists typically wanted to preserve land as untouched as possible, in national parks or monuments, or in federally protected wilderness areas. This certainly has a place, though the extent of that place is debatable and often debated. People do not inhabit or commercially use the land in national parks or wilderness areas.
Conservationists, in my experience, have a different relationship to the land. Seven billion humans alive today have to live and work somewhere. The conservationists I have known - and I count my Alabama friend among them - see the land as a working habitat, one that has to support people and wildlife as well as climax forests like the longleaf and its undergrowth.
My friend once took me out on his tractor, paused in a field, and pulled out several handfuls of grass. He showed me the differences between the native species on which livestock could prosper and the invasive weeds that offered little nourishment.
My friend is in his 70s now. Men and women of his generation were proud to call themselves conservationists. I have known a few of them, and they have been some of my most profound influences. I found them in Montana and Arizona, in New England and in the South.
These people remind me of the longleaf pine in their patience and endurance, their strength and their connection to the land and the landscape around them. And they remind me of the longleaf because they, too, are not very common anymore. Their pragmatism, which was forged in the realities of the Great Depression and World War II, sometimes seems to have been replaced by an environmental absolutism that treats every issue as if it is the only issue that matters.
Maybe this is a greener attitude than the compromises a conservationist would make, but in the practical world, it offers as little nourishment as those invasive grasses.
I had the good fortune to live my life in a world that still has a few conservationists like my friend, and a few longleaf pines for them to conserve. If I can help pass along some of what they gave me, I will have done something useful.