Two years ago, we had never heard of longleaf pines. Now we’ve learned to recognize them, fallen in love with them, and named our farm for them. It’s time to tell you how this came to be.
My brother Dave Gray loves longleaf pines, inspired by his daughter Kara, an environmental biologist. And in turn, Dave Gray has inspired Amanda and me to nurture the longleaf pines on our property and to give them every chance to thrive.
Driven by his passion to protect them, Dave Gray has researched longleafs extensively. From him we learn that native Americans used fire to control the forest understory and keep the woods open so they could see through them. Fire is what Dave Gray calls the “magic elixir” for longleaf pines. Longleafs have evolved with thick bark, oversized roots, and long needles that help protect the tender terminal bud in a fire. And if the longleaf survives while plants competing with it for water, sunlight, and nutrients don’t make it, that’s a prescription for success.
And succeed they did. When the European explorers arrived in America in the 1500’s, the longleaf pine was the dominant tree over about 60 million acres in the southeast, and part of a hardwood and pine mix found over 30 million more acres.
Let’s pause and let that soak in. That means there was an area the size of Alabama and Mississippi combined where longleaf pines were dominant, with another Mississippi’s worth where longleaf was mixed with hardwoods. But now, longleaf pine forests are down to just three million acres, or a mere 3% of their original range. Today’s entire U.S. longleaf pine forest would fit inside Connecticut with room to spare. What happened? Two words: white men.
When the Europeans arrived, they first started tapping longleaf pines for their high quality resin. In theory, one could harvest the resin from a longleaf pine without harming it, but in practice, the process tended to weaken trees and leave them vulnerable to pests, drought, and fire, their former ally. Our ancestors cleared massive forested areas to grow cotton, often piling up the now-precious old-growth timber and just burning it to get rid of it. And longleaf pines were later prized because their trunks were straight, hard, and dense, making them ideal for sailing ship masts. Loggers paid little or no attention to replanting forests until just a few decades ago; when they finished clearing a section, they just walked away from the desolate fields of stumps.
Slowly, fitfully, but surely, landowners and conservationists today are working to bring back the longleaf pine. We understand why. We love their gentle beauty. We love the way a grass stage longleaf barely peeks out from the forest floor and languishes for a year or two, and then suddenly bursts into its growth spurt and puts on a foot two of vertical growth in one season. We love the way longleafs sway in our nearly constant breeze (hence the name of the farm), and the way the wind rustles through their needles with a distinctive whisper. By the way, quietness, silence so delicious you can hear the breeze rustling through longleaf needles, is one of the simple joys available only to people who live in the country.
And there’s another reason why longleaf pines matter. Amanda’s colleague at Samford, Dr. Larry Davenport, has studied the effect of climate change on southern plants. He says longleaf pines are likely to survive the onslaught of catastrophic climate change better than other species. So when you ask Larry what we can do to prepare for climate change, his advice is simple: “plant longleaf pines.” More about that later.
Just before the previous owner of our farm put the property on the market for sale in 2007, he logged it for pines. We will never know all we lost from that decision, but we fervently wish he had given us a chance to buy before it happened. We know we lost some magnificent longleafs. Dave Gray can recognize the stump immediately when he tries to dig it up with his excavator because it’s far stronger, tougher, and more tenacious than the taproot of a normal pine. We can say with confidence that many of the larger trees that the loggers felled were longleafs. What we don’t know is whether they even noticed the difference between them and their more common cousins. We just know they’re gone now.
What we do have today, and what we shall protect, are the younger saplings that were too small for the loggers, as well as a few specimens that were too close to the property line, too close to water, or too misshapen for harvest. This picture shows a young adult longleaf looking south from the house site. You can get a taste of our river bottom view behind it. So we treasure these longleafs that survived the logging apocolypse and work to nurture them. Last year we planted about 300 new longleaf seedlings. It’s a little late in the season, but we got another 200 trees from Dave Gray last weekend and “heeled them in” (buried and moistened their roots) until we can plant them next week.
We know that, at some point, we’ll need to use fire. If you’re not going to use poison, and we’re not, you eventually need to use fire to keep competitors from choking longleafs out with their shade. That’s one of the many new skills Amanda and I are going to need to learn. And frankly, it scares us. We’ve already had a couple of fires get away from us in the process of clearing and burning, so we have a vivid recollection of the raw fear you feel when a fire you’ve set is is out of control.
We are part of two generations of Americans that have grown up hearing the frenetic admonition from Smokey the Bear that “only you can prevent forest fires,” and we have that reflexive fear of fire that Smokey (or his paper corporation handlers) wanted us to have. Fire just seems scary. Nevertheless, we know we will need to use fire if we’re serious about nurturing our longleafs, so we shall “screw our courage to the sticking place” and learn to plan it, to use it, and to control it in a responsible way.