Tree's tale inspires hope in tough times


Patience: Pine's struggle for survival proves that endurance can pay off.

December 26, 2003|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

HERE'S A Christmas pine tree, not for your house, but for your head and heart - a symbol of patience, endurance and hope for those who wonder whether this nation and this bay region can ever learn to exist peaceably with their natural treasures.

This comes from a correspondent, Larry Hedrick of the U.S. Forest Service, one of only a few people who have actually visited Tree No. 3 in Colony 249, growing deep in the Oakmulgee District of Alabama's Talladega National Forest.

The pine is a longleaf, variously known as Georgia pine, southern yellow pine, longstraw pine or heart pine. Longleafs are nobility among the many eastern pine species, capable of living four centuries or more.

Their wood in strength and durability is more akin to oak and teak than to other conifers. Reduced now to just a few percent of the forest that stretched from Virginia to Texas, longleaf pines once formed "the most biologically diverse habitat" in the contiguous United States, according to the Nature Conservancy.

Tree No. 3 was "cored" with a forester's tool that extracts a slender plug of wood from a tree's center to its outside. One can then count its annual growth rings, and tell from the spacing of the rings how fast the tree was growing.

Our pine was born in 1632, a couple decades after Capt. John Smith explored and mapped the Chesapeake Bay. Its beginnings were inauspicious.

Longleafs are remarkable for their ability to "bolt" from the seedling stage and shoot skyward as much as 15 to 18 feet in as little as two years.

But Tree No. 3, according to the rings, took seven years to emerge, slowly, from a seedling. It was, in foresters' terms, "light-suppressed," meaning that it was literally overshadowed by a dense growth of taller pines.

Its growth rings, so closely spaced that you'd need a magnifying glass to accurately count them, tell the story. Through the colonization of America, through the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the little tree struggled for light.

Through the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century, it languished in the shade. In 1917, at the age of 285 years, Tree No. 3 was still a reed among columnar forest giants, with its trunk a scant 8.5 inches in diameter.

When the forest around it was logged that year, our tree was no doubt deemed too scrawny to bother with.

But now, for the first time in nearly three centuries, Tree No. 3 basked in the light. Its chance had come. Within the next 20 years, it added more wood than it had in the previous century.

It continued to grow robustly, and around its 340th year, in the 1970s, it became home to a colony of endangered red cockaded woodpeckers.

The woodpecker nests only in the cavities it is able to excavate in very ancient pines. A few of the birds were still reported in Dorchester County, in a stand of huge old loblolly pines, during the 1950s; but after those were cut, the woodpecker was never seen in these parts again.

Tree No. 3 today is 371 years old, still growing, 14 inches in diameter now, still supporting colonies of red cockadeds year after year.

And in the last decade or two, the tide has turned for the longleaf pine as a species and a forest ecosystem. Groups such as the Nature Conservancy are working to restore it on military bases, where the missions of war preparedness have kept large stands intact by providing the frequent fires the species needs to remain healthy and compete with other vegetation.

The Forest Service at Talladega and other locations has also committed to managing and expanding its remaining longleaf forests for their remarkable wildlife habitat value.

We will not likely see the great pine forests stand as they did when Tree No. 3 sprouted. But after centuries in shadow and decline, our tough old pine and its species are on the upswing.

It's worth noting as we despair at the slow pace of cleanup around the Chesapeake Bay that events don't always happen on time scales to accommodate human needs and wants.

That is why Betsy Taylor, whose Center for a New American Dream tries to change America's hyper-materialistic consumption patterns, keeps on her wall a picture of Susan B. Anthony.

Anthony worked all her life to get the vote for women and never saw it happen. But it did happen.

I have lived in the same neighborhood for 15 years now, and watched owner after owner move onto our shady street and clear trees to plant more lawn.

Whenever a neighbor cuts, I try to plant another tree. I don't see any end to the neighborhood trend. You could call me pessimistic - but I'd tell you my yard is a very hopeful green.

Pessimism is merely feeling bad, and it's hard not to these days. But hope is about the long run, about having a vision and keeping the faith.

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