25.5.08

home land

I have been reading a number of books lately, and they have come to an interesting intersection. I have this past 6 months been reading through the 10-ish Little House on the Prairie books, and in them part of the whole story is moving around to different frontier lands and building stick-frame houses. They use pine, and they are on the edge of white settlement, at the very tip of the railroad at the time that was rapidly being built to cross the continent around the 1880s. So, everyone is building from pine, talks a lot about the smells of the pine resin and the changing colors from yellow to steadily more grey. These folks live on the prairie, which is a vast open land of grass and flowering herbs, and part of their settling of this place is to plant trees, break up the sod and plant large crops of wheat and oats. They essentially move in and start destroying immediately, but the stories are good for reading about frontier life, typically the woman's role is what interests me, the cooking and housekeeping and caring for each other.

Another book I've read is Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which is about growing up poor in the south in this century, after the devastation of the long-leaf pine forests. I did not know that such trees existed, although I have learned from this book that one of the largest reserves of long-leaf pine is on a reservation within the Eglin Air Force base, right down the road from the little city where I grew up in northwest Florida. I'd always known there was a large reservation of pine there, perhaps the largest air force base in the world, but I had no idea why they held them in reserve or why they had controlled burns within them. Now I understand that these trees were the best outfitted for surviving in the south- in fact they monotonously filled the south from central Georgia on down toward Ocala, west toward the Mississippi River and along the east coast up toward Virginia. My brother Josh lives in southeastern North Carolina along the coast, and it is covered in pines with a strikingly familiar environment to that in which we were raised. The lightning in the south where all the big thunderstorms form has burned out all the other trees that grow up there, or at least it used to, and most of the animals in the forest would run into gopher tortoise holes built under the savanna-like sandhills. Wiregrass grew beneath the trees and was also resistant to fire. The long-leaf pine has extremely flammable leaves which keep fire moving quickly through and not burning the dense trees, which are very hard. Apparently they are beautiful. I can't say that I've seen, except in Citra this winter when I saw a baby pretending to be grass. They grow like grass for a while, then shoot up tall very quickly when they're old enough as another fire-protection method.

Between the late 1800's and now the long-leaf pine forest has been reduced by 99%. A lot went into the construction of the American West, from the Appalachians onward. Laura Ingalls Wilder got to smell the blood of the forest I've never known that grew where I was born and raised in its own kind of prairie.

So this brings me to the last book on this list which I found somewhere, Trees Every Child Should Know, from 1909. The entry for the longleaf pine is as follows:

The longleaf pine is one of four hard pines whose lumber is not distinguished by ordinary carpenters, but is generally called "yellow pine." This is the chief source of turpentine, pitch, and tar, as well as one of the very best lumber trees of the pitch pine group. The most ornamental wood is that with the curliest grain, and the narrowest bands of alternating dark and light colour. It grows slowly in hard, sandy soils on the damp coast plains near the Gulf of Mexico.

We shall know this tree from all other pines by the length of its needles. They are twelve to eighteen inches long, flexible, dark green, shining, three in a bundle, enclosed at the base in long, pale, silvery sheaths. They remain on the tree but two years, therefore the tree top is bare except for thick tufts of these drooping leaves on the ends of the branches. If you have never seen these trees growing in their natural forest belt, that ranges from Virginia to Florida, and west to the Mississippi River, or in small scattered forest patches in Northern Alabama, Louisiana, or Texas, you may have seen branches or small trees shipped north to be used for Christmas decorations.

The popularity of these pine shoots is growing, and those who cut them seem not to realise that they are killing the forests of the future. Trees grow from seeds which fall in the territory cleared by the lumbermen. If these little trees that Nature plants are cut as fast as they show themselves above the forest floor, how are the longleaf pine forests to be restored? It is a great problem, for a great part of the natural wealth of the South is in these lumber tracts, now being cleared at a terrific rate of speed, and the land left practically worthless when stripped.


2 comments:

donald423 said...

yeah, the Little House books rule. If anyone's seen any of the screen adaptations, ignore them. They do NOT do justice to the original books. All the screen adaptations I've seen have been very disappointing. Also, the stage adaptation seen by Sharqi & Kid Khalila.

It's hard to read them, though, seeing how difficult they make things for themselves. But Pa always gives the Indians the benefit of the doubt. Pa's my hero.

Good to hear from y'all!!!

Anonymous said...

The little house books are great for learning how to do old skills in low-tech ways. The sense of community they have is astounding. But yeah, they didn't do much to "steward" their environment, as commanded by their god. It is too bad feedback cycles sometimes take so long. I get the feeling that if they knew they were building a desert, they might have found something else to do. We of course, are aware of the feedback we are getting, although many of us choose to ignore it. And many of us are choosing to live in the garden, and encouraging those kinds of exciting feedback cycles as much as possible.

carey