Native Pine Tomorrow

“For five Decembers I’ve been lured/ to the grove of evergreens/ sown too thickly in awhite pine seedling careless/ planting by inhabitants before me…”

White pine (Pinus strobus) is a native pine tree in this region, and these stately evergreens once commanded a position of dominance in the forests of northeastern United States. Fine specimens and groves of white pine still exist in portions of this territory, but the prime stands now are few and far between. White pine has always been prized for its timber, and for decades the tree has been ruthlessly cut. White pine, in its remnant populations, looks to be a beautiful survivor. There are several colonies of this conifer remaining on the hills near my home, and even some young trees (less than a dozen) can be found on my small property. groveLately I’ve decided that the white pine needs a little help if it’s going to make it here on my land and not be pushed out totally by the rampant growth of Norway spruce, a native of northern Europe.

“Maybe cold December is the best time/ for this work. Maybe to be standing/ wrapped in winter’s green arms is good/ for nurturing holiday spirits…”

young pineBack in the 1970s, someone foolishly planted hundreds of Norway spruce and red pine in a hillside grove, with only a few feet separating each small tree. After I moved in, I began to cull the crowded individuals with a handsaw. Each December I added to the thinning project and the trees grew rapidly. They also began to spread incredibly fast across the old fields, so now the spruce are overshadowing wild apple trees and other deciduous species, not to mention the struggling native. Left alone, the spruce will dominate the place completely and minimize diversity not only in the plant kingdom, but in the animal, as well.

I could hasten the change by buying a new chainsaw for the job, but I’d rather take it slowly and work with the rhythms of nature. I prefer to walk this pathway into the future rather than ride some big machine. Sure, the work is tough, and the odds against saving the native pine tree are daunting.deer bite

“With a handsaw I remove the dead,/ the spindly and the weak, imagining/ pines breathe easier now, can sing/ the wind’s song in their boughs…”

I wrap the seedlings up against the cold and for protection from the wintering deer. Whitetails readily browse the pine when other vegetation is blanketed by snow and ice. Deer will not mess with the prickly spruce. A couple of years back I left the pine trees unprotected and the deer consumed half of all the seedlings on my acreage.

Eventually I’ll have the largest spruce and red pines (averaging 50 to 60 feet) harvested for lumber. I won’t make a lot of money from them, but I’ll get a jump on my plan for greater diversity. Next fall I may even need to encourage more deer hunting by responsible neighbors. Meanwhile, I’ll cut a bunch of small Norway spruce and lean them against the barn. When my son comes home for Christmas, he can decide which one, if any, he wants to take inside for decoration. All the others will be composted.

cull“Snow falls in these darkening days/ before solstice, filtering down/ through pliant needles like a/ waking dream…”

To make a stand for wildness and diversity on this small piece of land, I’ve got to hope for continued monitoring long after I am gone. This, too, will not be easy. Norway spruce are being planted on neighboring farms now managed for the hunting of deer. Seeds of the spruce will drift on the wind for years to come. If no one culls the fast-growing species, native trees will suffer.

It’s the holiday season and soon we’ll turn the corner of our longest nights and darkest hours. We do whatever we can to celebrate the final power of life.

People trim their homes and trees with electric bulbs. I’ll trim more evergreens from the hill and then… “welcome the return of light to these boughs.”

[Lines of poetry from “Thinning Pines,” in Uplands Haunted by the Sea, W. Franklin, 1992]december sky

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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6 Responses to Native Pine Tomorrow

  1. Junior says:

    I should be home to pick one out on Saturday evening! As long as they’re not too bedraggled by that point, the Christmas tree will be a recycling project. That last picture is really nice, and it’s making me look forward to coming home even more.

  2. Keith on Puget Sound says:

    I wasn’t aware that there was a problem with non-native trees encroaching on natives, such as the white pine. In the Puget Sound region we are constantly at odds with english holly and ivy. We have, believe it or not, ivy pull parties where folks spend weekends ripping it off trees and tearing it out of the ground. For the last several years i haven’t seen ivy and felt comfortable that i had succeeded in exterminating it from my half-acre. On Saturday i found a hidden patch. I need to get out the matlock soon. I hope you have better fortune in saving the white pine in your neck of the woods. It looks like such a beautiful tree!

  3. Keith on Puget Sound says:

    Let me just add to the first sentence that i wasn’t aware that there was a non-native problem back east.

  4. Keith,
    Thanks for responding to this issue! Yeah, as you have to deal with non-native problems like the ivy, out here we have invasive plants such as Japanese knotweed, a species that we used to have “pull parties” for along the river because of its biblical growth pattern and the fact that it replaces the native plants that hold down the soil along our waterways. It’s been a losing battle so far. As for white pine, I’m hoping that the problem is more local (on my own property) rather than region-wide, although the pine is fighting a cancerous blight everywhere and its status is rather unknown. The bottom line is that we get the word out and do what we can to control invasive plants on our own bits of sod when they threaten to replace the native growth.

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