Friday, February 01, 2008

Looking for Longleaf: A book review and personal reflections

"A Yankee is worth two bails of cotton and is twice as easy to pick."
-a saying in Thomasville, GA when northerners flocked there for health, which they believed came from breathing pine scented air.

Lawrence S. Earley, Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 322 pages, a great bibliography, 22 pages of photos.

I grew up under longleaf pines. When I was six and we moved (or maybe we were exiled?). We left the Sandhills of North Carolina for Virginia, I remember thinking the pines in Virginia were so ugly. They were shortleaf varieties with stubby little cones on them. The needles on a longleaf are, as the name suggests, long. And their cones are huge. As a child, we’d pick up cones when in North Carolina and bring them back to Virginia. My brother and sister and I decorated the cones, creating miniature Christmas trees, and then sold them to neighbors. We made enough money to buy Christmas presents for our parents and grandparents. People there couldn’t believe the size of the cones. After a three year stint in Virginia, we moved down to the coast of North Carolina. Again, the longleaf was the dominate tree and covered our neighborhood as well as the woods behind our house (except for swampy areas in which cypress grew). Many of these trees had slash marks where they’d once been tapped for turpentine. In the woods behind our house, there were several mounds about three feet high and 20 or 30 feet across. We thought they were Indian burial mounds, but later I learned that they were probably places where the longleaf was burned to harvest tar and pitch. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, with the wooden sailing ships still in use, tar and pitch were vital industries. These commodities were the major product being shipped out of the port of Wilmington.

Earley divides his book into four distinct parts. He first deals with the ecology of the longleaf. For many people, the pine forests are boring. But under their canopy and in their branches, there is a great diversity of life. In the Sandhills, wiregrass covers the ground. In wetter areas, carnivorous species such as pitcher plants and, in a small area of southeastern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina, Venus flytraps flourish. Earle also discusses a variety of other animals that like the pine habitat including quail and woodpeckers as well the role fire plays in the ecosystem. He also discusses the pines unique seeding arrangement, of having a bumper crop of seeds every six or seven years. If the trees always produced high numbers of seeds, more animals would depend on them for food. Sporadic concentration of seeds is a strategy that has evolved to help the trees ensure that every so often enough seeds are available to take root.

In the second part, titled “Exploitation,” Earley explores the peoples who used the longleaf habitat. He starts with Native Americans and then with the Anglo-settlers in the 18th Century. These people used the pines for tar and pitch and later timber. Heart pine, with its high rosin content, is extremely strong. In the late 19th century, as the great pine forest of the Upper Midwest was cut, loggers moved south. The logging was mostly clear-cutting and when new trees were planted they were generally loblolly or slash pines. After the timber was cut, the next industry to demand pines was paper mills, which put pressure on the longleaf. It is estimated that when the Spanish arrived in the new world there were approximately 92 million acres of longleaf, stretching from southern Virginia to Florida and across the Gulf States to East Texas. In 1996, there was only 2.95 million acres left.

In part three, “Forest Management,” Earley discusses how the longleaf pines not only faced problems from industry, but also from forest management practices. Throughout much of the early 20th Century, foresters tried to keep landowners from burning the brush under the pines, a practice that hurt the trees ability to reproduce as well as increasing the fuels in the forest which, when fires do strike, cause hotter fires (which damaged the pines). It’s only been in the last 25 years that foresters have successfully been able to grow and reproduce the longleaf.

The final part of Earley’s book is dedicated to "Ecosystem Restoration." Several things have come into the longleaf pine’s favor. The Endangered Species Act has been invoked to protect the red cockaded woodpecker, a bird that depends on old growth pines for its habitat. Also, commercial interest has come back to the pines. Bailing pine straw is a major business in areas with concentrations of longleaf pines (my cousin has a thriving business that employs a host of employees who bail straw). Even the desire for hunting preserves for quail has lead to attempts to protect the longleaf. Although urban growth continues to threaten the longleaf, the author does end with a more hopefully outlook for the pine. After losing the majority of its habitat, maybe a remnant will survive.

For sometime I’ve wanted to learn more about both the tree and the people whose livelihood used to depend upon them. I doubt many of my readers will be overly interested in this book, (except maybe a few of ya’ll Southerners), but for me this was a fascinating read. Earley is a wonderful writer who draws you into stories as he provides a natural history of the longleaf pine. Although I don’t make it a habit to read natural histories of pine trees, I have read one other book which is also fascinating and authored by a friend with whom I’ve hiked part of the John Muir Trail. If you find such books interesting, check out Michael Cohen’s, A Garden of Bristlecones: Tales of Change in the Great Basin (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998).

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.


  1. I hate the VA black pine... And we have so many scattered about. They are considered trash as far as lumbering goes. Everytime we have a big storm Martin and I are cutting up a black pine that has fallen along the edge of the pasture. We'd clear them out if we didn't need the buffering from a neighbor's field below us. And they are ugly. But the white pines are very abundant and lovely....and they smell nice. And I love my Cedar trees too.

  2. I grew up in Florida and we had beautiful pines, pecans and Magnolias

    we also had cypress

    I remember being so upset when our landlord cleared all the pines from our 5 acre land we were renting

    michelle sent me btw

  3. I do actually find this interesting, in part because the same scenarios can be applied to a variety of situations, and hopefully, the lessons learned can be used to save more of this country's native habitat.

  4. Having traveled the Carolina's I had the good fortune of witnessing a snow storm in the mountains. Here in the desert we get 8 inches of rain annually.

  5. A good, deatiled review.

    Michele sent me here.

  6. I know quite a bit on section four since my younger brother is one of the leading experts on the red cockaded woodpecker and creating habitat in long leaf pines. One of his main jobs is trying to re-establish colonies from his old district in Louisiana where they are more plentiful to other places in the southern U.S.

  7. Wow Ed, a small world! Ask him what's his take on the book--I picked it up mainly to learn more about the Naval Stores industries but enjoyed learning about all the rest.

  8. Enjoyed your personal sharing from your own life and from the book here. Thank you!