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.”

a counting list : postpartum depression

the small slip
of the infant’s bottom
in the blue bath water

how perfection is 
an unsung psalm

the form of eggs

six am half-light and 
grasses on the hill

twelve goats running uphill

extra slices of bread after dinner
and soft butter in the dish

the infant asleep 
in five minutes

asleep again in two


I have an unpublished chapbook called m(other), and this is a poem in it that I think about a lot–I did this morning, when there was soft butter on the counter. Postpartum depression can make the smallest acts monumental, overwhelming–even something little like setting out butter, washing a dish, picking up a sock. I struggled mightily with any sense of self during my first postpartum experience–and this poem is a ledger of remembering some of the graces in life, despite a deep soul-body weariness.

A Child of Place

Second Childhood Home in Catlett, Virginia

If you were a child broken by a sudden family move, then you might have a strong attachment to place. In other words: what writers and artists sometimes spend their lives looking for (or trying to get right), you already have: you have carried it with you.

Cornfields by the house, green ribbons and tassels. The bike shed with the flat roof you played house on. Stream (more rightly a crick) where you dumped your organic yogurt, so your mother didn’t find out you hadn’t eaten it. Where you hunted for crayfish under rocks. Bridge to the garden. The garden. The house painted pale apricot with deep peach shutters, repainted a crisp white with green shutters when your family moved. The iron railing they added to the concrete front steps, for safety. You had never needed safety. Orange Tupperware pitcher you watered the front beds with. Front yard swings. Woods where you roamed, found a passable cedar tree for Christmas. Mayapples and Jack-in-the-pulpits, violets and ferns. Burrs. Milkweed pods, fox berries, trumpet vines, pokeberries, dandelions, clover. Swimming in the Rappahannock, the deep cool of the wide, green riverbank. The rocks only half-submerged in the shallows. Swimming there with your friend Celia. Celia’s house for fourth of July: small fireworks spinning on a glass front door, laid down on the grass. Hostas and orchard: peach, plum, apple, dwarf cherry and pear. Pears falling to the ground. Eating pears all afternoon. Celia’s old white horse: Sweet Chariot. Old Bud, the Billy goat that butted you over the moment you turned your child back. The indignity of it. And still you played near Old Bud and the junked cars, wasp nests in their vinyl, heated hollows. Dug for plastic shotgun shells on the red dirt hill. Once: threw eggs in the hen house. Uncle Al, upset about his eggs. Played in the barn with the kittens, the sweet hay. The red and black oaks towering thinly above. Sycamore, tulip poplar, hickory, elm. Summer like a yard stick of good play.

Can we always live here? asks my child. Our house sits on a quarter acre, in town. Fenced backyard. Loblolly pines creaking above us. I grew up on five, then ten acres. Not enough room to wander here, to be outside, away from the sound and sight of neighbors. But still, that attachment to place.

When I was eight, my family moved abruptly from deep-greened and cornfielded Virginia to the flat brown of Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. It broke my child heart. My father, in the Army, was there for a year-long targeting course. My mother had just given birth to my sister Della prematurely—four pounds, six ounces, smaller than a baby doll. We photographed her on my parent’s bed, next to the baby doll. We photographed an apple by her head—the apple was much larger. We fed Della bottles with protein powder in it. My mother was carried into a deep postpartum depression. Homeschooling, driving from Virginia to Kansas, all worldly goods packed up and in multiple moving vans. I remember we all got sick that road trip—intestines churning down the road, stops at rest areas to change totalled child outfits. I remember four tornados touched down in Kansas before we did, blew over houses. And that tornados visited Virginia just after we had left. Ordinary omens. My mother worked harder than ever, clipped her bangs back, nursed Della and baked peanut butter cookies: pans and pans of them. I can’t see a peanut butter cookie without thinking of my mother’s sadness and her baking in brown, flat Kansas. The state penitentiary was across a field from our backyard. We could heard the roll calls in the morning, on the loudspeaker. Sometimes an inmate escaped, and ran through our military base neighborhood. The military police and their dogs would follow, barking. My mother baked, pressed a fork into sugar, printed a hashed cross on each peanut butter cookie.

In Kansas, I cried at night for the home we left: my birth home in Opal, Virginia. My mother somehow found time to comfort me: kind words in the dark at night, M&Ms. She said “I know, honey,” and I knew she understood.

To live on a military, cement cul-de-sac in brown, flat Kansas after having lived in your pioneer dresses in rural Virginia—to be homeschoolers among families who went to the base school, was a culture shock. Some of my best memories in Kansas were from winter: my mother put soup in glass quart jars, and my brother and I ate our school lunch in the field between our house and the state penitentiary. The wind was whip cold, but there were large tufts of brown grasses and a culvert hollow we could eat our soup in, wind-shielded. All that year I held our Virginia home in my mind. I didn’t understand we had sold the house, and would not be returning to it, even if we returned to Virginia. We did return: my parents bought a colonial-styled home in an even more remote part of Virginia, among fields and Mennonite dairy farmers. I cried more at night, in a new bedroom. Again my mother comforted me. This house had five acres, fields and woods around it, room for a large garden and chicken house. It was a good home, but not my birth home. It was where I would finish my childhood, before another move.

When we moved again, to Hawaii (my father’s overseas tour; it was either Hawaii for all, or my father would go to Kosovo, and the family to Germany), I landed with my siblings on a fraught large family housing street, now demolished, then known as Ft. Kamehameha (Ft. Kam for short), on the gritty, brown-lipped beach of Pearl Harbor. I talked so much about Virginia that the neighbor children teased me. So when asked where I was going (it was a nosy neighborhood, with large picture-windows and small courtyard facing a back walking path, everyone knew everyone’s business), I would reply “Alaska.” My mother grew orchids in our courtyard. There was a crooked, dying plumeria tree in our backyard, and soursops that my mother put into our smoothies. The geckos crowded the backdoor light, sometimes falling with soft smacks.

Our last move was to Goldvein, Virginia. This home was on ten acres, with a pond and a barn. It had a long, gravel drive over a culvert (that would wash out regularly, creating contention with the neighbors who lived beyond our house and shared the road). We moved from Hawaii to Virginia in January, our tropical-thinned blood shocked by the change. The moving truck jack-knifed over the culvert and the narrow gravel road, was stuck for at least a day. It was so cold, so bitter cold, but so sweet to be back in Virginia. Old church friends sent a giant round tray of dried fruit, and we made oatmeal in the morning. My mother soon had her chickens in the barn, and dairy goats, and turkeys. Pigs. Geese and ducks and Guinea hens. She let my brother and I adopt two white, long haired kittens.

There are so many things that read like weakness that are actually strengths. Being mocked by the neighborhood children for my attachment to Virginia—as though we are not made of our attachments. As though our attachments do not say who we are, and what we love. Our attachments have the potential to be the best part of ourselves.

One of the mysteries I return to in my mind is that it takes so long to understand who you are, as a human. And yet life can be short, and violent, and you can barely begin to know before your life ends. Kierkegaard has a quote about how life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards. Kierkegaard, who died at 42, who thought he would die at 34, his father insisting, in a corrupt form of Calvinism, that God had cursed him and none of his children would outlive him. Five of his seven children did die before he did. So Kierkegaard wrote in a fury like he was bound to die, which he was. And then, after his father dies in 1838, when Kierkegaard was 25: a relief of self.

There are narratives hanging over each of us that direct our lives, whether we know or acknowledge them, or not. My father’s career in the military. My parents’ longing for a “back to basics” life, homeschooling their children away from the “secular” influence of public schools. Virginia’s history of civil war and plantation wealth: the schools and buildings built from enslaved labor. Visible and (made) invisible.

Sally Mann, in her memoir Hold Still, writes about Virginia’s land with great warmth. But Mann’s is a geographical history of generational wealth, replete with expensive cars, family doctors and major stock in the cotton industry that resulted in a 450-acre farm in Lexington. Enough money can land you near the Natural Bridge, in Jefferson’s majestic Virginia. Mann and Jefferson’s Virginia is a different world than the Virginia I grew up in. Much of Virginia is simply “the sticks” and the hollows, the closest thing a gas station or lone standing post office, maybe a Dairy Queen or a Walmart (if you’re lucky). This is the Virginia I love—the overlooked one. The one where the dairy goats and the chickens are raised. The County Fair. 4-H. Little Baptist churches and their old graveyards. There is something about scrub cedars and fields that catches at my heart.

Place is not only something you carry with you, it is something that holds you. Like in the children’s book Are You My Mother?, when, after the baby bird has fallen from its nest and experienced many adventures—repeatedly asking several strange machines “Are you my mother”? (a ship, a truck, a snort)—the baby bird is returned to its nest, the place where it would also encounter its mother, returning. I can think of many brilliant children’s books that illustrate this deep sense of place: Miss Rumphius, Blueberries for Sal, The Ox Cart Man, The Snowy Day, A Pocket for Corduroy. What is the boat or the hill or the laundromat that holds you best, and how can you return to it, either physically or in your mind? How can you honor that attachment? Much time has been spent decrying the concept of nostalgia, as though it is empty, an iridescent bubble of memory, without investigating what that nostalgia is an impulse towards, what attachment it indicates, and what it means for a person to retain that attachment despite everything else that has happened to them in their life. What is it about childhood, that keeps us there? For me, it is a deep and layered sense of place and self: Virginia’s green-ferned woods, Virginia of humid summer, Virginia home where my mother labored and brought me into being in May, the corn just growing in the fields.

Writing Residency at Weymouth Center, Southern Pines, NC

Porch at Boyd House, Weymouth Center

This is my first time at a writing residency. It was not free, although it used to be–an article in Our State magazine featuring the Weymouth Center’s Writers-in-Residence program hangs on the wall outside the kitchen downstairs, and describes the residency as a two-weeks stay for (invited!) writers, who then would also give a reading in town and teach a workshop at the local community college. This was in 1997–almost a different world. Nonprofits everywhere have suffered since then. Now it costs $250 a week to stay at Weymouth Center, in Southern Pines, NC. The cost helps to pay for the groundskeeping of what is now a historic Southern estate with, you guessed it, historic and extensive grounds.

Real talk about childcare and homecare: my partner took our children to a family reunion while I’ve been away, and I paid a friend to housesit our pets and garden while we were all gone.

What’s Weymouth like?

The first thing I want to say is that this residency is quiet. So quiet. That seems to me to be a factor that a writer would either love or loathe, depending on temperament. The Boyd Tract (part of Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve) is located next to Boyd House, and has an easy 1-mile loop, Round Timber Trail, and many trails circling and intersecting horse trails you can also walk. The longleaf pines are resplendent in these woods. We are talking hundreds of acres. The house has beautiful flower gardens, frog ponds and fountains, and ample benches everywhere. There are picnic tables throughout the meadow by the Boyd Track, and I’ve gone out reading there some evenings.

The residency doesn’t provide food, but does have a small kitchen with a full size fridge and freezer, a microwave and stove, a drip coffee pot (with cone filters) and french press and grinder (I consider this essential information). There are tea towels and sponges and soap, and dishes. No tea to be seen, but there are some oils, soy sauce, salt and a couple scant cooking basics.

I have my bike with me, and have biked to both Food Lion (about 2 miles) and Lowe’s Food while here. The first time, my GPS directed me down some busy roads (Highway 1) and that was a little surprising/terrifying for me, a new cyclist! Motorists were really gracious to me. The next trip, I took backroads, which resulted in more like a 3-mile ride through residential Southern Pines–lots of right and left turns, and uphill for a fair bit of it. It is hard work to carry your groceries back in a backpack! A car would definitely make this residency easier–or bringing all of your groceries. But of course, one always forgets something.

What have my days been like?

Lovely as hell, haha. I have a cozy room (The Max Perkins room–one of the smaller rooms, but right next to the kitchen and a bathroom, and the lighting is good, the bed comfy, everything ample), and I’ve slept well but not as much as I thought I would!

The first day I arrived, last Monday, I took a brief nap. I didn’t really know what resting would be like–after all, a residency is time to write. So balancing rest and writing is something you have to approach rather generously, I think. Listen to what your body says it needs! I needed that little nap. I woke up, and started an essay that night. My wifi wasn’t working at all that day (it was fixed, apparently), so I hotspotted my computer to my phone for any googling I needed to do.

Most days I wake up, make coffee, and write for a few hours. I usually take afternoon breaks to read a couple books I have been wanting to read, but couldn’t find the concentration for at home with children chiming every few minutes (Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Stephanie Jones-Rogers They Were Her Property–I read about a chapter in each every day). I have taken so many walks in the longleaf pine woods, and visited the oldest-known living longleaf pine (473 years!) and the second largest longleaf in the state (I love this tree!). The meadow that is also part of the Boyd Track has mowed paths through it, and it lovely walking as well. I’ve seen so many deer, pileated woodpeckers (and the red cockaded and red-headed woodpecker!), and other birds. The wood trails have sand put down, so sneakers+socks are recommended. I haven’t encountered a single tick while here, though there are red ant hills to watch out for.

What else?

I wrote two new essays, several poems, read three books total (Christopher Kempf’s gorgeous new What Though the Field Be Lost, LSU Press, 2021). Some evenings I was tired, so I watched some films I needed quiet space to watch: Agnes Varda’s Vagabond (1985) and Mur Murs (1981), Eric Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale (1996).

What most surprised me?

The inability to revise. I just couldn’t. I’m really happy with the new work I’ve done this week, and feel like these essays are going to be a part of my WIP essay collection Confederate Monument Removal. Something about the new physical space triggered a new mental space for me–I couldn’t return to drafts I’d written at home. Which is fine, they will get revised, but new work does not always get written! Our best laid plans, etc.

What is the item I’m happiest I brought with me?

I’m a terrible homebody, so my pillow with its familiar flannel cover and my favorite fuzzy blanket. These made my bed instantly homy, and frankly, reading in bed is one of my favorite things in the world. I’m a Taurus, ha.

What was this week’s deepest pleasure?

The woods, the pine woods. Just soaking in them. The “pine barrens,” the change and difference of environment (and yet an environment absolutely connected to my writing, and thus really inspiring for my work. I had never considered before that WHERE you do a residency really, really matters for your work. If you’re working on essays on the South and pine poems for a poetry manuscript, well then: this is it! You don’t necessarily want a desert or mountain residency, or an urban one). Walking anytime I felt like it has been wonderful, freeing–no cats or dog or children needing anything. Silence. Time with my thoughts. I love being able to chase down every single thought I had, every line that popped into my mind. Such a privilege to have that space and time.

It’s also been great to meet a writer I had never met before, the poet John Hoppenthaler. John and I exchanged books, and have sat out on the porch in rockers at night and talked. After so much isolation from other writers (the weird, screen world of Zoom excepted), it has been a real joy to connect with a writer as experienced and also committed as John. We are both ghosts in this old house, keeping to our rooms or quiet writing nooks outdoors most days. (The Weymouth Center can house up to four writers in residents at any given time, though this last week in June/July is their final week before closing until October, I believe, when they open back up to writers).

If you’re a Carolina writer who has given a lot of their labor to others recently, but have not experienced space and time for yourself and your writing, I highly recommend Weymouth. If the cost is an issue, let me know and I will help you set up some funding.

I want to note that this old building is not accessible–lots of stairs (all the rooms are upstairs), narrow hallways, etc. If you have any questions, please reach out.

Here’s a link to their application: https://weymouthcenter.org/writers-in-residence/writers-in-residence-apply-here/