Learn from the Pine

Loblolly Pines

Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth invisible

Richard Powers, The Overstory

Four Loblolly Pines—also called Sea Pines, Frankincense Pines, Southern Pines—send their straight trunks through the North Carolina humidity. In a tangle of pine boughs, two hawks have built a nest you might mistake—as I have—for a squirrel’s. Under these pines, under the weep-like hawk cries circling their nest, is my house. In a back room on the first floor, the door closed against the sounds of my children’s play, is my desk. I think of the pines above me as I write, needles brushing the house, pinecones falling with a thunk against the roof. When the wind blows, you can hear the needles blow with it. I welcome the pines’ presence, even when I imagine one falling in a storm’s high winds, as one did through my neighbor Waverly’s kitchen, a few years back. If a pine wants in, it comes in—that pine made a skylight out of Waverly’s kitchen ceiling. Waverly says it took months to fix properly, and several contractors. The tree removal service for a single a large pine like a Loblolly can run you upwards and above a thousand dollars—one lesson here is that it costs to lower something, to haul something pine-sized away, to mulch the evidence of branches.

That the pines do not fall on our house I consider a daily mercy, and the hawks nesting in the pines a grace—especially since I own no chickens, unlike my mother and her grandparents, the majority of our Southern family tree filled with squawking fowl. My mother lost more than one bantam chicken, the smallest and sweetest of show breeds, to a hungry hawk. The Loblolly Pines that the hawks nest in are gloriously tall and straight, and it’s easy to visualize how the British sailors took one look at American pines—specifically, New Hampshire’s White Pines—and saw the masts and the making of many ships. The British Crown appointed official Surveyors of Pine and Timber to mark suitable “Mast Trees” and reserve them as “The King’s Pines.” Colonists were threatened with the (then-incredible) fine of £100 for cutting down marked trees. True to form, the New England colonists did what they pleased on American soil, disregarding the King’s edict and felling White Pines liberally for their own use. The White Pine, growing to 150-240 feet, dwarfs the 60-110-foot Loblollies above me. But no one has marked the Loblolly Pines with the three-slash hatchet mark, known as The King’s Broad Arrow mark. There is no king to reserve anything for, in America.

And yet, to say anything about who is currently in power of the pines—and every other natural resource in America—you have to say something about white settlers and colonists, about the lands taken from Indigenous peoples, about the African people brought by force and enslaved by white settlers to work the stolen and evacuated land. When I refer to the Loblollies, I do not say “my pines,” because the quarter acre of land my family’s house is built on belongs rightfully to the Tuscarora and Shakori peoples. I have to go to a website to discover this,[1] and from there I can visit the individual websites of the native peoples who lived here, under the Loblollies, and who were pushed out for the development of Durham and the tobacco industry, for mill sites along the Eno river.[2] The land and the peoples involved forget none of this history, and we live daily with the historical repercussions; systemic racism fuels American institutions: school districts are still effectively segregated, resources are channeled to wealthy neighborhoods (for example, the planting of trees—a recent study shows that in the city of Durham, wealthy, whiter neighborhoods have a canopy cover of 50%, while predominantly Black neighborhoods have 10%[3])—predominately white districts in which the polling places stay open all election day long. It’s a fantasy that racism in America is a Southern problem, that it belongs somehow to the air underneath the Loblolly pines—historical accounts show us that racism is American, from shore to shore, sea to sea, from deep Louisiana to Vermont, to California and Oregon and all the states between.

Perhaps it looks as though I have digressed from the North Carolina pines. Yet, to learn from the pine is surely to know the land history of the pine, the politics cutting down both the pine and the peoples the pines sheltered. Why the pines as a focus of attention in the first place? In part because the pines daily invite my attention—towering, evergreen, their long-needled branches gathered at their tops like tassels on ripe corn. In part because I’m am at a moment of suspension in my life, and I find myself constantly looking up to the crowns of the pines, as if for an answer. My family and I are going on six months of quarantine living, and my spouse and I just signed a virtual school attendance commitment form for our children this fall. You would think there would be more understanding and less blame occurring during the daily stresses of a pandemic, but this is patently untrue, and there is an abundant amount of blame going around. Plenty for all, but especially for teachers, mothers, the sick, the young—everyone with no hand or say in COVID-19 testing facilities and school openings (not the people asked to write columns in The New York Times, in other words, not the people on college board of visitors, not the college presidents). It is always the right time to ask the question: Who is being asked to perform the care? How are they being supported (and not supported)? So many of us have no childcare or housekeeper other than our two hands. I ask myself what my responsibilities are, how I have failed. I would like to hear more admittances of failure and acknowledgment of responsibility from those in power, on a daily basis. Daily as the presence of the Loblolly Pine, greeting me as I step out the front door, children and dog in tow for yet another walk around our now-routinely busy park.

How to “learn about pines from the pine,” as the wise, seventeenth-century poet Bashō suggest we do? The pines do not worry or weep, as the hawks do in their branches, after their hawk-fight. One of the virtues of the pines is their Stoicism—unseen, the taproot of the Loblolly grows five feet deep, anchors the pine against rough and passing winds. Yet do not think the pines undramatic, or incapable of action: occasionally the pines fall with giant crashes, and sunder houses. A great wind can fell a Loblolly Pine, in part because of its height and stature, its immovability. While a pine might gently sway in the wind, a reed or cattail bends itself double, survives the storm by bowing, and then bounding back. The pine cannot bend like that. But the pine can shade and shelter a pair of nesting hawks. It can offer itself, be itself, and find water for its roots, though it must shoot through the pipes of our house to find it, water trapped and rising, flooding the bathroom. The pine lives—a fact we neglect often to take into account, as wooded areas are leveled for new townhouse developments in Durham. The pine lives, and sometimes it falls. When the pine knocks on your door or your kitchen ceiling, you will know it: hear the roar in your ears, the crash of branches, the vibrations in your body. Its presence will be undeniable. It will bring the weather in with it. You will feel the wind and the rain on your face, in your hair. A strong and branching presence is what I learn from the pine, a rooted attention to place; a respect for the lives before us, around us, and coming after our own brief time.

[1] Native Land Map: https://native-land.ca/

[2] Learn more about the Tuscarora people here: http://www.skngov.com/ and https://tuscaroranationnc.com/. In visiting these sites, I am struck by how digital “sites” are the only space(s) truly left to Indigenous people.

[3] A 2016 Duke University study, “Durham’s Urban Forest: Living in the Shade of Injustice.”