Deep in the forests of the southern coastal plains are places where trees rise up straight out of the ground, sometimes one hundred feet, their branches splayed all near the crown in a wide, high skirt, with clusters of glossy needles eighteen inches long exploding like fireworks from the hooked end of each branch’s tip. Together, these trees make a canopy that is wispy, airy, loose enough that sunlight touches and illuminates the needles, shining down the trunks and reflecting from the charred bark at the bases, and past that to the ground, to the seedlings that grow underneath like bunches of grass, the long needles clumped together to protect the delicate terminal buds from the fire on which the tree has evolved to depend.
This tree, the longleaf pine, is a “keystone species”—a term coined by the late ecologist Robert Paine to describe a species whose role is to maintain balance in an ecosystem. Although Paine originally saw keystone species as predators with “high trophic status”—that is, animals at the top of the food chain— the keystone species concept has since been applied more broadly: it not only describes the role of wolves in Yellowstone, for instance, but also elephants in African rainforests, and bison on the coastal prairie.
In the forests of the American Southeast, longleaf is a keystone species because it promotes fire in a fire-dependent ecosystem. Suffused with flammable oils, its needles catch fire and drop to the forest floor, where the fire spreads from dried pine straw to the grassy and herbaceous layer. Once the fire has cleared the scrub brush and hardwood saplings that would otherwise outcompete the longleaf, the seeds germinate, reaching their taproots deep into the ground, sometimes as far as fifteen feet. These taproots grow as wide as the trunk itself and stabilize the tree, protecting it from violent storms and damaging winds that blow in from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. A strong taproot is the beginning of a healthy tree, and a healthy tree is an essential part of this ecosystem.
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A seedling might stay in its “grass stage” for up to fifteen years, but when a fire burns the understory and opens the canopy, a seedling exposed to the sun can grow as much as three feet a year. This is the “rocket stage,” when the tree becomes an awkward, branchless juvenile, skinny as a broomstick but ten feet tall, covered in bark like dragon scales, topped by a plume of wild needles waving in the wind. It grows upward, while around its base grow prickly pear and trailing phlox, white firewheel and wire grass, and literally thousands of species of fungi, lichens, plants, trees, insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, and amphibians that rely on the tree for at least some portion of their survival. And the survival and health of the tree are linked to these same species, and to fire, in a complex web of interdependence.
In the longleaf pine ecosystem, fire eliminates the brown spot fungus that often infects the trees; prevents habitat encroachment by shade-tolerant hardwood species; and clears and resets the herbaceous understory, creating opportunities for more species to establish themselves and grow—like orchids that bloom only after a fire, ferns that come back larger, stronger. A burn requires careful planning, tending, maintenance. And it teaches landowners that caring for the land might mean letting it go.
It’s spring and I’m on my way to a forest in far eastern Texas. I’ve been driving for hours when my phone leads me off the highway onto a blacktop road, then a gravel road, then a dirt road, and eventually to a closed gate with a sign that reads private property. I have no cell signal, so I do my best to follow the faint lines of the map back toward the main roads, to come at my destination from a different way. The trees and vines grow all in a tangle, crowding the road so closely in places that branches brush my truck on both sides. Finally, I reach a small gravel turnaround, beyond which I see a bridge and a trail. I park and walk the rest of the way, passing a spray-painted sign with an arrow pointing toward Aldridge Sawmill on the left and toward Boykin Springs, 2.5 miles down the path, on the right.
I hike down the trail, past the old millpond—once intended to supply water to the sawmill, to float and clean the logs. Now it’s a stagnant bog covered in algae, cluttered with fallen tree snags. The entire area around the mill is thick and overgrown, more like a wilderness today than it was before loggers cleared this forest more than a hundred years ago. The trees here are mostly hardwood species like oak and ash. There are very few pine trees: one, nearly fifty feet tall, is cracked and burned and hollowed out at the base. It leans on the next tree over for support. A good, strong wind will bring it down.
I see what’s left of the sawmill before I realize it is there, camouflaged by mildew and mosses growing on the concrete walls, the lower half of which are covered in graffiti—mostly tags, but also a few murals, including one of an enormous yellow snake coiling its body around the buildings. In the mural, the hills behind the mill have been cleared except for a handful of trees.
At the height of its operations, this sawmill was the buzzing center of a bustling town that included seventy-six buildings: houses, a warehouse, a hotel, a store, the company offices. It was home to a thousand people and produced as much as 125,000 board feet of lumber each day, making it one of the largest lumber producers in the piney woods region of East Texas. But by 1923, the lumber was gone and the sawmill closed. It’s been abandoned ever since.
It’s a common story around this area, where so many towns have names like Lumberton, Pinewood, Woodville, places where after the “virgin” longleaf forest was clearcut, the land was transformed into timber plantations densely packed with loblolly and slash pine, planted in some places so closely together that I can’t see any light between the trunks when I drive past. Here, trees are a cash crop—sold for lumber or pulp or utility poles.
There’s a saying here for the ethos that guides this industry: “Plant ’em thick and cut ’em quick.” I heard this from Mike Oliver, a forester with the Natural Resources Conservation Service who’s working to restore the longleaf pine ecosystem all across the Southeast. Mike is a conservationist, a label he applies to himself somewhat apologetically after dealing so long with landowners here in Texas, where the main concern has always been return on investment—how many cords a forest can produce per acre, when the crop can be thinned and finished, how quickly a tree can be turned into money.
When Mike first arrived here after working on bottomland hardwood restoration in the Mississippi River Valley, he started talking to landowners about longleaf, but found them resistant not least of all because growing longleaf is a totally different process from growing any other tree. Longleaf not only has a long life span—capable of living five hundred years—but it is also fire-dependent, which means it needs to be tended with burning throughout its whole life. Growing longleaf is an enormous commitment of time and energy and resources, but along with that commitment come all the ecological benefits: soil health, water quality, biodiversity. “You’re talking about restoration, not just for the sake of the tree, but for the whole ecosystem.”
It’s been hard for Mike to persuade people to think that way. “Folks weren’t really keen on the term ecosystem or ecology,” he told me. “That was bad language in Texas.” Instead, Texas landowners spoke the language of plantations, of maximum harvest from minimum land, of the herbicides to spray that required the least labor and maintenance to produce a crop that will grow for twenty years before it is cut a final time. “All just to get something to grind up and turn into a cardboard box,” he said.
The other challenge is that many of these landowners have never even heard of longleaf. “The economy of this country was linked to longleaf for three hundred years,” Mike says, but people don’t know what it is or why it matters because it was all clearcut before they were born.
There was a time, once, when longleaf pine covered an estimated 92 million acres, from this forest in East Texas all along the Gulf Coast, south into Florida and north to Virginia—an area almost as large as California. After the “sawmill bonanza” of the early twentieth century, only 3.2 million scattered acres of longleaf remained; of that, only twelve thousand acres were “old growth.” Gathered all together, it wouldn’t be enough to cover the island of Manhattan. The tiny percentage of trees who survived were likely young and small, in hard-to-reach places, not worth the investment of time and energy to cut them down. Now these are the old-growth communities, and most are on government lands, like this forest, which confers a certain degree of protection, I suppose, and at least for now means the forest is being managed for conservation.
But that also makes this forest an exception. Eighty-nine percent of forestland in the South is privately owned. Most of the land in the United States is privately owned, in fact. There are 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States, and just over a quarter of that is federal public land. Nearly nine hundred million acres are private agricultural land, 98 percent of which is owned by white people. Property laws in this country give these white landowners the “right” to grow a forest on their land or chop it down; they can burn the forest if they want to or cover the land in herbicides so that nothing grows at all; they can watch the land wash off into the rivers and watch the rivers carry it away.
What changes their minds, at least in terms of planting longleaf, Mike told me, is an appeal to their sense of shame, of duty to legacy. “Do you want to see a red-cockaded woodpecker?” he asks landowners at meetings. “Do you want your grandchildren to be able to see one?” The most recent National Woodland Owner Survey, conducted by the Forest Service every five years, seems to support his view. The most common reason cited for private ownership of a family forest is “to enjoy beauty or scenery.” Among their top concerns: “keeping land intact for future generations.”
Generous financial incentives also help. Forest landowners have their choice of various government programs: grants to kill off invasive species, to seed the understory, to plant seedlings; practical support in managing the site with prescribed burns; and subsidies to maintain longleaf pine communities. Some programs are even exploring the option of offering credits for carbon sequestration, or payments to people who own forests and manage their ecological benefits as a public utility, such as improving water quality and protecting the land from erosion.
And these programs are, in fact, having some success. Today, there are roughly 4.7 million scattered acres of longleaf forest, and most of the new plantings have been on private land. In testimonial videos, landowners express their enthusiasm for this forest, and the project of restoring it to its “pristine condition” as some kind of nostalgic symbol of their southern heritage. Now, they can hunt bobwhite quail again. They can show their grandchildren the forest that their own grandparents once walked in. They’re fixing something broken, they seem to believe. No one says that what’s broken won’t be fixed just by planting trees.
When British invaders established what is now Jamestown in 1607, they entered the northeastern edge of that once extensive longleaf pine forest, finding it so airy and open that “a man may gallop a horse amongst these woods any waie,” Captain John Smith claimed. The forest was “a plain wilderness,” he wrote, “as God first made it.” The colonists looked for proof of that idea—that this “forest primeval” had been shaped by God’s own hand for the use of European men—in the nature of the forest itself: it seemed designed and intentional, “not choked up with an undergrowth of brambles and bushes, but as if laid out by hand in a manner so open, that you might freely drive a four horse chariot in the midst of the trees,” the Jesuit missionary Andrew White wrote of the forest around the Potomac in 1633.
Forestry books on longleaf are filled with quotations like these, many of which are fond of acknowledging that in 1608 the first export from the Jamestown Colony back to England consisted of wooden poles, wooden shakes (a kind of rough-split wooden shingle), pitch, and tar—all products of longleaf pine. Longleaf became one of the colony’s chief sources of revenue, an increasingly important commodity for the naval-based economy of the British Empire: The wood was straight and hard and resistant to decay; it made good planks in ships and good timber for the construction of fences and homes. When wounded, it secreted oleoresin, a resinous, acidic oil that could be refined into pine tar, rosin, turpentine, and pine oil—collectively referred to as “naval stores,” products used to seal the seams between wooden planks on ships in the growing colonial fleet.
Back in London, longleaf became the building material of choice. Construction plans proudly specified longleaf “pitch pine” (as it was known in England) for the studs, frames, and beams, and also for the floors, doors, wall panels, cabinets, and many different varieties of furniture. At Balmoral, the royal castle of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria in Scotland, the floors and walls were made with longleaf pine.
According to Welsh historical geographer Michael Williams, it is almost impossible to understate the role wood played in the colonial economy; “From the early seventeenth century to the early twentieth century the trees of the forests produced the most valuable raw material in American life and livelihood,” he writes. In every census year but one between 1850 and 1910, the manufacturing value of the lumber industry exceeded cotton. And, like the cotton industry, the lumber industry relied on the unpaid forced labor of enslaved Africans, who created the wood products that played a role in every part of life in America as well as across the colonial empires of Europe. For this reason, he argues, to the census value of lumber manufacturing should be added the products of “the wood planers, the packing-box manufacturers, the coopers, the tanners, the carriage makers, and the furniture makers,” as well as “the shipbuilders and house builders,” and the entire transportation industry, “being essential in the majority of ships, riverboats and barges, carriages and railcars, bridges and railroad ties, in plank and corduroy roads, and even in road surface blocks and canal locks. It was the major material used in household, industrial, and agricultural implements and machines.”
But Williams notes something else too—something that’s almost never discussed in those forestry books—that the “open, airy” forest that the colonists described in so many of their earliest letters and journals wasn’t, in fact, cultivated by the invisible hand of God for European colonizers, but rather by Native people who had cared for the land and tended the forest from time immemorial, who used every part of the tree in every part of their lives: They collected fallen branches from the forests to burn for heat and cooking; they mulched their village roads with pine bark; and they used pine posts in the construction of their homes. They set fires, regularly and intentionally—sometimes multiple times a year—to open the forest, to improve visibility and hunting, to promote the continual new growth of seeds, berries, and nuts, which invited grazing by game animals, such as deer, elk, bear, quail, and turkeys. These practices created the airy, parklike forest that the Europeans observed, admired, invaded, and claimed as their own.
“Control of the land was wrenched away from the Indigenous peoples,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, “and the forests grew dense, so that later European settlers were unaware of the former cultivation and sculpting and manicuring of the landscape.” For the next two hundred and fifty years, European colonizers clearcut the dense longleaf forest along the Atlantic coast all the way to the Piedmont, into the interior along streams and rivers, all the while stealing land from the southeastern tribes through deception, bloodshed, and genocide, draining the forest for turpentine, cutting it down for cotton and tobacco plantations, turning it into ships to transport kidnapped human cargo away from their homes and across the Atlantic, and razing the entire ecological web that had sustained civilizations. The land itself had no say in the matter; it became private property, an inanimate means to its owners’ ends, “a commodity to be acquired and sold—every man a possible king,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes.
After the Civil War, land speculators bought up huge tracts of what they were now calling real estate, selling it first to railroad companies, who then sold it to logging companies. Almost overnight hundreds of sawmills arrived all across the South to bring down the forest, beginning in Virginia and the Carolinas, then moving south to Georgia and Florida, then west through Alabama and Mississippi, into Louisiana, and finally into Texas. By 1930, nearly all the longleaf pine had been harvested across its range, and what ecologist B. W. Wells called “one of the most wonderful forests in the world” was gone.
When this sawmill went quiet, the U.S. Forest Service bought the property as a potential investment, just as they did with many tracts of forested land all across the South, and though they tried to replant longleaf pine, it didn’t really take—or so they claimed. Longleaf got a bad reputation among lumbermen as being finicky and hard to grow; as a result, in many timber plantations across the South, landowners planted loblolly or slash pine instead. But loblolly and slash pine don’t behave like longleaf in a longleaf pine ecosystem. They can’t grow on the same kinds of soils; they have different water needs; they need different nutrients, and in different amounts. Loblolly and slash pine don’t have the same defenses against windstorms and hurricanes that blow in from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean and, importantly, loblolly and slash can’t withstand fire the way longleaf pine does. When fire ignited in these timber plantations, it wasn’t a healthy process in a healthy ecosystem; it became a disastrous one that burned out of control.
Fire suppression became official policy among federal land management agencies, and remained the only fire policy even after Roland Harper, a field botanist in Alabama, “discovered” the role of fire in 1913. “Fire is part of Nature’s program in this part of the world,” he wrote of the Alabama longleaf pine ecosystem, “and the woods were undoubtedly set on fire by lightning and perhaps other natural causes long before man appeared on the earth.”
So many forestry books, longleaf newsletters, and white papers prefer to blame lightning—or sometimes “spontaneous combustion”—for creating the longleaf pine forest. The idea that the forest was created and managed by people who burned it on purpose—and could again—was unthinkable. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, when the National Park Service began to recognize fire as a natural process, that lightning fires were allowed to run their course, but only under specific conditions in special management zones in select national parks. In 1974, the Forest Service changed its policy from fire suppression to fire management, calling these new programs “Let Burn,” “Prescribed Natural Fire,” and “Wildland Fire Use.” Foresters have since come to recognize that just as a rainforest both needs and creates heavy downpours, a longleaf pine “fireforest” needs and promotes regular low-intensity burning to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
Now there are dozens of programs intended to support landowners who want to restore longleaf all across the South. Here in Texas, that means fire is beginning to return to the forest, and so is longleaf. In places like the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary outside of Silsbee, land that had become a timber plantation has longleaf again: seedlings line the trail, saplings rise up from between the grasses, and healthy, adult trees anchor an ecosystem that provides habitat for at least 582 species of plants, including 340 species of wildflowers, more than 500 species of butterflies and moths, 119 species of birds, 44 species of fish, 29 species of reptiles, 18 species of amphibians, and 11 types of freshwater mussels. It is home to 89 species of trees, one of a handful of places in North America that is a dedicated sanctuary for longleaf pine. But the sanctuary ends at the property line.
On the dirt road toward Boykin Springs, I smell the forest before I see it: smoke and burning wood. The entire floor is blackened; the fire still smokes and smolders in places, all the undergrowth flattened and cleared. I stop the truck and walk into the forest a bit and find charred pinecones, splayed open and dropping their seeds. In a sunny patch of burnt needles, I see the green shoots of grasses already returning.
I park the truck in the day use area and a carload of half-naked teenagers goes barreling past me down the road; their laughter and smoke trail behind them. They’re aiming their bodies for the cool water of the springs, I think, a popular swimming hole the Civilian Conservation Corps created in the 1930s. The day is warm, buggy. I walk away from the water, into the forest, along the trail that follows the creek. This part of the forest has also been burned recently, maybe earlier this spring. The floor is more cluttered than open and clear. The hardwood saplings are charred and dry looking; but they haven’t crumbled or returned to the earth, not yet. Here, the pines all seem intermixed—loblolly and shortleaf mostly.
I walk down the trail for a while, following the creek, when I nearly step on one of the biggest pinecones I’ve ever seen. I look up, perhaps one hundred feet, and see those telltale explosions of glossy needles at every hooked tip of the tree. The charred trunk is so large I wouldn’t be able to get my arms all the way around it if I tried—maybe barely if there were two of me. It must be one of the oldest pines here.
The oldest longleaf pine tree in the world, I remember, is a nameless tree in Weymouth Woods in North Carolina. It is roughly 474 years old, taking root around the time Michelangelo took over construction of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, fifty-nine years before European colonizers arrived at Jamestown. In 2016, when the tree turned 468, visitors to the North Carolina State Parks system held a “Party for the Pine.” They celebrated by hiking to the tree, cutting cake, singing it “Happy Birthday.”
A forest of trees is more than a place where they grow—it’s a community.
The longleaf pines in this forest where I am standing are far younger by comparison; the oldest among them have been growing for maybe three hundred years, making them older than the Constitution of the United States, older than the cities of San Antonio and New Orleans, older than James Watt’s steam engine. If cared for correctly, these trees could go on living several hundred years more. Or, at least, that’s what some forest experts seem to think. The truth is, no one really knows how long they can live because we have no point of reference. I have found no records of a longleaf pine that died of old age.
I am reminded of something I read recently about tree anatomy: that trees grow from the cambium layer, which is under the bark and is the part of the tree that makes wood. Meaning, the oldest part of the tree is at its center, the heartwood, which doesn’t grow, and, strictly speaking, isn’t living. The oldest longleaf pine trees are mostly heartwood, rings packed so tightly together that they’re nearly immune to decay. In these rings is a history of connection to the land that is longer than the history of the forest being logged, or milled, or even owned.
We tend to accept that ownership of the land means we also own everything connected to it—all of the creeks and soil and trees and plants—but this is a relatively modern idea, one that evolved from the violence of colonization and the forceful transformation of land into wealth. That wealth has been concentrated in the hands of a small group of people whose power is expressed through the extent of what they own—a power that private property laws were created to protect.
The forest in which this tree lives makes up about one percent of the 13.5 million acres of federal forestland across thirteen southern states and Puerto Rico that comprise the U.S. Forest Service’s “Southern Region,” which consists of several national forests in the former longleaf range, including the Angelina National Forest, as well as Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana, De Soto National Forest in Mississippi, Conecuh National Forest in Alabama, Ocala National Forest in Florida, and Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina—and this isn’t even including the land outside of the Forest Service’s control, like the 723,000 acres managed by the Department of Defense, such as Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and Fort Bragg in North Carolina, or the national refuges, such as Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, which comprises nine thousand acres currently managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specifically for biodiversity. Control of this public land consolidates power, but one condition of power is the ability to cede it. Earlier this year, the Department of the Interior announced that 465 acres of this refuge has been returned to the Rappahannock Tribe. It’s not too late to return the rest.
I take a winding way home through the forest, along roads that have numbers but not names, or if they do have names, they’re not the kind that are known to outsiders like me. I pass a dozen timber plantations, including one where hundreds of tree trunks have been sawed and stripped and stacked. I pass empty fields where trees have been cut down and the land has been cleared and sprayed and burned.
The most difficult conditions to restore a longleaf pine ecosystem are places where forests have been cleared for agricultural fields and pastures, tilled and planted and harvested, over and over again. The more connections people break, the harder they are to repair. It’s easier in a forest that’s been clearcut and abandoned, easier still in a forest where pine is intermixed with hardwood. The best conditions are forests where pines already grow, places already maintained with fire.
But even in the most successful restorations, some losses can’t be reclaimed. The loss of the longleaf pine ecosystem has been greater, in terms of percentage, than the loss of the Amazon rainforest; it is more threatened than the wetlands in Florida. And with that loss has come the loss of biodiversity: At least thirty species that are endemic to the longleaf pine ecosystem have been listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, including the gopher tortoise, the indigo snake, and the red-cockaded woodpecker. The red wolf and the ivory-billed woodpecker, both of which once occupied longleaf pine ecosystems, are virtually extinct.
These are the casualties of the single most violent and destructive force in history—the lie that the only value life has is the wealth that can be forcefully extracted from it. This history is still unfolding in ways it’s not always easy to see or to admit when we do see. I own my house, or so I tell myself; its value is
somehow linked to my own. People claim to own these forests and all the trees inside them. But a forest of trees is more than a place where they grow—it’s a community of countless generations of thousands of species, each playing its essential part in the time given. A community has value that no one should own.
The blacktop road merges onto the four-lane highway, and as the trees give way to grasses, and the grasses to strip malls and parking lots and single-family houses, I pass a semitruck transporting a load of tarred black utility poles—fifty feet tall and completely straight. Beside us I see, maybe for the first time, the line of utility poles planted along the road: a single row that diminishes into the distance.
This story was made possible by the support of the Orion Fund for Women Writers.