Long-lost, Long-leaf: The Return of a Forgotten Forest?

An old-growth stand of Long-leaf pine (Florida?)

She was 92 million acres total before the early European colonizers began to cut her trees down or to tap into her resin for turpentine and rosen.  She stretched from coastal Virginia to Florida and from Florida to Texas.  What is left of her, you may ask — a little under 3 million acres.  And, the wits of forest managers are being tested to bring her back as Earley covers in his beautifully written book, Looking for Long-leaf: The Rise and Fall of an American Forest.

I was inspired to read this book after reading a blog that herbalist Juliet Blankespoor of Asheville, NC wrote.  Little did I know how relevant the understanding of this ecosystem was to my understanding of parts of my own ancestry.

My mother’s side of the family were from Louisville, MS.  Our many ancestors started in either NC or SC and made their way inland, deeper and deeper into the forest, as land-grants were issued and road-ways were revealed for movement.  Some of my ancestors were, indeed, loggers…and a decent number of them were farmers benefiting from the newly revealed, arable soil.

Map of the longleaf territory

Of course, I know so little about the expansive history of European settlement of the South and the original forest and its caretakers, the numerous tribes of the Southeast.  I will only offer what I have learned so far and what has resulted from my digestion of the information.

I think it was the mid to late 1700s that the logging business began in the South.  Early settlers saw an endless forest.  Some thought that that pristine longleaf ecosystem was dull and monotonous, others thought it was the most heavenly and beautiful sight they had ever seen.  (Probably many of them had not seen an old-growth forest, as the Roman empire had cleared most of Europe for their maritime vessels).  The logging started in NC, which became the world’s largest supplier of timber for European ships.  Basically, all the mighty ships of Spain, England and France were largely suited with the rot-resistant, supple and sturdy wood of the long-leaf.

Longleaf pines grew very slowly.  The trees in the first picture, above, were at least 250-350 years old.  Their width was narrow because of the poor quality of the sandy soil around the coastal areas.  If you looked at the rings of the trees, though, the bands would be very fine and narrow (indicating their many years of growth).  This tight growth is what created a very tough and durable heart-wood that was so greatly desired by the world market.

The timber works moved further South as demand grew and speculators and businessmen began to tap into new forests.  The mills were built around waterways and timber was simply floated down the rivers to port cities.  Names were etched on the logs and once a year, you would go down to the port to collect your money.  Basically, the deforestation could only happen around waterways, thus limiting the impact of the loggers (at first).

But then — move aside! — make way for innovation and progress?  When railroads began to appear in the mid 1800s, the speed at which the southern forests were being deforested multiplied.  The mechanization of clear-cutting took a deafening toll on the Southern landscape.

Clear-cut longleaf forest

The timber and turpentining industries coupled with a complete lack of reverence for the forest and ethics on forest management devastated the longleaf forests.  Saw mill communities and turpentine “camps” dotted the Southeast and created the first pathways for settlement in the area.  Turpentine camps were actually the lowest paid jobs for both black and white men.  They were not welcomed by locals as these camps were known for public drunkenness, rowdiness, and prostitution.

Before the clearing of the trees, the long-leaf forests of the Sandy Pines (in Southern Mississippi especially) was known for ranching of grazing animals — cattle and the great Eastern Buffalo.  With the devastation of the forest, this ancient practice almost came to a complete end.  Grazing animals required regular burnings of the Sandy Pines to encourage grasses for forage.  The buffalo actually preferred to eat cane grass shoots.

A turpentine camp

Turpentiners make cuts in the wood to encourage resin to flow

Old bottle of ‘Spirits of Turpentine’

It only took 200 years for a mighty 92 million acre strong longleaf forest to dissolve into less than 3 million acres (which the greatest impact being from 1880 to 1920, when railroads were the most efficient).  Allan Nation, in his book, “The Moving Feast” writes the following, “by 1920, most of Southeast Mississippi resembled the grass covered plains of Kansas with not a single tree in sight, albeit littered with thousands of tree stumps.”

Because of longleaf’s precarious ways of regeneration (too lengthy for me to discuss here), the lessening of regular fires (and the heat needed from longleaf needles to burn), and speed at which the forest was being cut down, longleaf didn’t stand a chance.  Scrub oaks, certain hardwoods, and fast-growing pines made their way into the original longleaf forests and crowded the longleaf pines out.

Prescribed fire in a recovering longleaf forest

Not only where the longleaf pines crowded out, numerous species of plants, animals and birds were also sent into decline.  The gopher tortoise, the cockaded woodpecker, and the many plant species that comprised the ground-cover of the forests are the main examples.  The ground-cover of the longleaf habitat was said to be the most biodiverse in North America (and not too far behind some of the Amazonian rainforests!).  Orchids, grasses, wildflowers, and peculiar plants like the pitcher plant took root in the fertile, post-burn forest floor.  There’s also a great diversity of insect life there, too (and very low numbers of ticks).

A young longleaf in front of pitcher plants

Fire?  Yes fire.  Many habitats in indigenous regions of the Americas were largely managed with fire.  Fire was used to rid areas of pests, to encourage plant growth, and to draw wild game into the area.  The longleaf habitat was not the only forest system that relied on fire.  Charles Mann has written a great article about this in the Atlantic.

However, many forest managers have had a hard time bringing fire back into the common language of forest stewardship because of the Smokey Bear (Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires) campaign that has largely brain-washed the American public.  It has taken quite some time to shift perspectives on forest management.  Groups like The Longleaf Alliance are now being formed to restore the longleaf forest and educate both private and public land-holders with steps to take for proper forest succession.

A man standing near the forest, longleaf giants (NC?)

And why restore these forests?  To me, that’s like asking a poet why they write poetry or asking a bird why does it sing in the morning…  Some things draw us into action and into being because they are beautiful and because they are just.  I think the potential for revitalizing the longleaf forest is just that — beautiful and just.  Of course, the 92 million acres will never be recovered completely.  However, the act of stewarding an ecosystem back to health and physically and spiritually being involved in that recovery process…has to be one of the most rewarding things to do on this planet.

Old Boss

Which brings me to a topic closer to home now…  To give you a window into the way the trees and forest were treated by the early settlers of the South, I’m going to tell you about the reported largest shortleaf pine in the world, “Old Boss.”  Old Boss was located just a few miles due east of Louisville, MS (where my family goes back for generations).  This is the middle-Mississippi ecosystem…the northerly edge of the longleaf forest…

The fall of the Old Boss

Basically, the Old Boss was hit by lightning in the 1920s and they decided to cut it down.  They special ordered a saw that was 16 feet across to fell the tree.  They then carried off large sections of the tree to the mill to be sold for lumber.

As the story goes, there was a feeling of loss among the community members…that this large tree died and was felled.  There were large gatherings of locals who came to see this great giant fall.  I think some were there to honor while others were there to simply take ‘trophy’ photographs with the magnificent tree.

SIDE NOTE (11/4/14):  Just a few months ago, while leafing through some old photo albums at my mother’s house…I actually found a newspaper clipping from the local paper about the Old Boss.  In the margin, my grandmother had written that her father, Jabel Shelton, was hired to haul each piece of the tree away by truck.

The Conquerers (sigh, terrible use of language)

Large sections were taken to the mill

I share this story to shed light on how large some of these trees were in the South and the legacy that has been lost.  I also shared this story to show that although the settlers were sentimental about these trees, this sentimentality was quickly curtailed by the reality of the profit that could be brought in from the sale of the wood.

Now, the Southeast is the world’s largest supplier of pulp wood (from pine) for paper products.  The South is largely treated as a great pine farm, especially Mississippi.  If I’m on the road traveling somewhere, it is almost a guarantee that I’ll see a pulp-wood truck driving down the road, with its stack of young, fast-growing pine trees.  Indeed, the forest is for sale.  The land is milked for everything it is worth.  In that way, nothing has changed…

Reclaiming our role as forest steward

Is it because the Romans colonized Europe and took all their lumber that early European settlers had no ethic and regard to the old-growth forest?  And, did that amnesia create the soulless clear-cut that overtook our forests with little more than a shudder from lay-people?  And, do we have the myth, the storyline, the heart-drive to entertain the possibility of bringing these forests back to their regenerative health?

Are we ready to step back into relationship with the forest?  I’ve always thought that the park preservationists and conservationists were just a knee-jerk reaction to the clear-cuts and speculators.  Well, they were.  When will it be time to integrate ourselves again with the forest?  And, how we will do that?

Forest management on public land will only take us so far.  Forest management for the encouragement of wild game hunting on private land will only take us so far.  To me, one of the best solutions is permaculture.  If you don’t know what that is, check this clip out on Youtube (taken at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in CA, which I have visited and it is amazing!).

Somehow, we have to integrate ourselves back into the landscape.  For now, we are sequestered into urban, suburban and rural landscapes.  These are ecosystems in their own right, but they largely wasteful and still disconnected from the fundamentals of life.

On the other side we have large tracts of park-land and federal land that are being rehabilitated due to our colonial past of exploitation.  We may leave the city and go into the forest on a back-packing trip, but we could not survive in the forest ecosystem.  This is not only because we are unskilled but because the forest has been ‘untouched’ for so long and would not provide us with the bounty it could if we were ‘in relationship’ with it.  Foragers and wild-crafters know that plants like thoughtful interaction.

The original forests that the Europeans saw when they came over to this land were not untouched — not at all.  They were dynamically managed by the indigenous peoples that lived here in a mutualistic relationship based on knowledge and skill.  This is what it means to be indigenous…to know a place and be of a place.

It is up to each of us to find some way to heal the wounds in ourselves that have separated us from the richness of forest life.  We all have a part to play in the recovery of our own souls, and this recovery, I feel on a deep and primal level, has to do with the recovery of our soils.

Update March 2017 ~ A new, one-hour documentary film has just caught my attention and is just WONDERFULLY done!  Please watch it when you get a chance.  It’s called Longleaf: The Heart of Pine.  It is really profound and beautiful…

12 thoughts on “Long-lost, Long-leaf: The Return of a Forgotten Forest?

  1. Just planted 50 longleaf pines on my little piece of land, not in rows but in random patches. Waiting on the next rain to move through. Transplanted about a dozen about 30 years ago with only one survivor but she’s a beauty. Thanks for the article.

  2. I loved your article!! Always glad to hear the words of someone who really cares about the forest and the history of it.

    • Thanks Becky! I think soil recovery is soul recovery…and tending the forest back to health is of utmost importance for future generations and for life. We need to increase eco-literacy…starting at a very young age…

    • I’m reading Looking for Longleaf now. A great book, but the numbers towards the middle of the book concerning logging in the latter part of the 1800s are gut wrenching.

      • Glad you got the book! Yes, the amount of deforestation was devastating (and current-day clear-cutting is an echo of that). I’ve had one very powerful and potent dream about this years ago when living in western NC… At the time of the dream, I didn’t know that the giant, old-growth logs were sent down rivers to ports for sale. However, my dream showed me a scene…a wide river…filled to the brim with giant, old-growth trees…log jam… In the dream-state, the logical mind doesn’t have time to calculate the situation and distance itself…so my emotional self was filled with grief and anxiety when I woke up. These kinds of things don’t just vanish from our consciousness…and I think planting trees (like you and others are doing) is a way to heal ourselves and our forests…

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