The long-needled loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) is responsible for the texture of the landscape around me. I live on a forested peninsula, and it is forested because loblolly pine trees sell for good money. So we grow pines here— but not for too long. We don’t let them grow long enough to mature and slow in their growth; before that happens we cut them down and start over again, with new pines. Tree species other than pines are cut down to make room to plant more pines. That is a gross generalization, of course; but this is most likely what will happen to any piece of land that is not farmland or a building site.
The market drives the landscape. We live on a paper plantation. The forests here are composed mostly of loblolly pines because pines are useful for making paper and because they are among the few tree species that can be planted and harvested twice in a human’s lifetime.
You might think I would be tired of loblolly pines, with so many of them growing all around me, but actually I feel love and compassion for them. To me, looking at a plantation of young pines is like looking at a nursery school classroom full of delightful children and knowing that none of them will live long enough to get gray hair or be a grandparent. I once hosted a Deep Ecology workshop that included a ceremony called the Council of All Beings. Following instructions from the workshop leader, we all wandered our separate ways until we felt a connection with a particular plant or animal. After finding our “thing” we were to spend time thinking or meditating about it, and finally we would represent this creature at the Council. To my surprise, it was the loblolly pines that reached out to me that day. I spent a long time in quiet communion with them, and I came to know that the life force is not just present in animals. It may sound obvious, but when you kill a tree you are taking a life.
Henry David Thoreau wrote many wonderful passages about trees. Perhaps the most controversial was a statement he made about a pine tree: “It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.”1
I love loblollies best when they’re big and old. The foresters around here will tell you that a sixty-year-old pine tree is just going to die anyway, so you may as well cut it down now. That’s true. It is just going to die; but so are we. Loblolly pines can live two or three hundred years, but we almost never get to see them in their mature grandeur.
IT WAS ONE of those rare spring days when everything looked perfect and new; the fruit trees were in bloom and the grass was a bright spring green. But the temperature was in the forties, a bit cool for kayaking, biking, or even just sitting outside. I decided that looking at the beautiful spring world through car windows (with the heater on) was the thing to do. So my husband, Rick, and I headed off to Elliot’s Island—a place I had looked toward across the river but had never visited.
The community of Elliot’s Island is at the end of a long, narrow finger of land. A single road surrounded by marshland for most of its length is the only way to get there. Along the first part of the road, before we got to the marshland, the surrounding forest was pretty much the same old scene: small trees, mostly loblolly pines, packed closely together. All the original forest had been cut; this “pine plantation” was the new forest created by the forest industry. Now and then along the roadside we saw a huge old tree from the original forest— an oak or a cherry or even a persimmon— a hint that this land could, and once did, support a mature hardwood forest. I could only imagine how beautiful it must have been. Farther along the road was a heartbreaking sight, a recently cut hardwood forest. The large-diameter, irregular stumps and huge piles of woody debris (“slash”), left to rot because they were not worth enough to haul to a mill, were clear signs that this was no pine clear-cut. Many tall, dead hardwood snags still stood as well, lonely sentinels left behind because they were worthless to the loggers.
It is heart-wrenching to see the old nest cavities made by woodpeckers in these snags. The cavities were made when the dead trees were surrounded by thriving, diverse forest. We have six types of woodpeckers left here, and all of them nest in dead trees. It’s fairly easy to spot their oval entrance holes about three-quarters of the way up the trunk. It will be a long time, if ever, before woodpeckers come back to this forest. Even sadder is the knowledge that these were the first— or last, depending on how you look at it—hardwood forests for large distances. Birds and animals displaced from these last remaining hardwood forests cannot just move to the hardwood forest next door. There isn’t one.
Farther down the road we reached land so exposed to wind and salt spray, so lacking in rich soil, that the only trees that could survive were loblolly pines. The hummocks that hold these pine forests are surrounded by marsh, and the logging trucks can’t get to them. Here, finally, we saw pines in the habitat where pines are supposed to grow. They are huge and stately, and their widespread branches appear like arms lifted up in praise.
It was worth the trip just to see what pine trees look like when they are not considered a commodity. They reminded me of something else Thoreau said of pines:
Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see
how the pine lives and grows and spires, lifting its
evergreen arms to the light— to see its perfect success,
but most are content to behold it in the shape of many
broad boards brought to market, and deem that its true
success! But the pine is no more lumber than man is, and
to be made into boards and houses is no more its true
and highest use than the truest use of man is to be cut
down and made into manure. There is a higher law
affecting our relation to pines as well as to men.2
Here, at last, were loblolly pines in their perfect success. I wanted to spend time with them, but it was cold and windy and I couldn’t get to the trees without slogging through the mud. So I kept my distance like the loggers have kept their distance. Bless the marsh, I thought, for protecting the trees. And pray that they never start helicopter logging in these parts.
THE SOUTHERN PINE BARK BEETLE (Dendroctonus frontalis) is one of the reasons why loggers are so anxious to cut down our pines. Reams of information are available about this little black beetle because it is considered a “pest.” In my eyes it’s just an organism that is trying to survive and reproduce. And because it reproduces in pine trees, and because we have covered this whole peninsula in pine trees, the pine bark beetle is doing quite well. In fact, it does best in areas where pine trees grow very closely spaced in monocultures. So the little female beetle doesn’t have far to fly to find a pine tree.
She gnaws through the bark and creates a curvy tunnel in the wood beneath, then releases a pheromone, a chemical that attracts male beetles to the tree, giving her a choice of mates. After she has done the deed with a lucky guy beetle she deposits her eggs in small niches along the tunnel.
The larva that hatches from the egg is a yellowish cshaped grub that also feeds on the sweet layer of wood just under the bark. When the larva has eaten all it needs it is ready for that miraculous transformation called pupation—the confined quiescent period when a soft grub becomes a hard-shelled adult insect with legs and antennae. Pupation takes place near the brown outer part of the bark, and when it is complete the shiny adult black beetle, smaller than a peppercorn, chews a perfect round hole and tries its new wings for the first time. It is rare to see the beetles emerge, but the tiny telltale holes they leave are easy to spot. The holes are a badge of victory to the beetles who have successfully completed their life cycle; but they are a sign of failure for foresters.
If they are present in large enough numbers, the beetles themselves can kill a tree just by chewing their lacy patterns through the sap-conducting tissue layer. But foresters can live with that; a dead tree is still salable timber. What really irks them is that a fungus called bluestain (Ceratocystis minor) usually follows the beetles. Fungus-stained wood is unmarketable— at least as timber.
In nature there is always another layer, and the closer you look the more intricate things become. The relationship between the pine bark beetles and the bluestain fungus is just another example of that. You see, as the new adult beetle chews her escape hole in the outer bark, she picks up a few minuscule hitchhikers: mites (Tarsonemus). If the beetles are smaller than peppercorns, imagine how tiny the mites are. But, like Russian nesting dolls, the story does not end there. The mites have hitchhikers, too: even smaller organisms— the spores of the bluestain fungus. In fact, some species of mites have special pockets in their anatomy that carry the spores. When our triumphant beetle flies to her chosen tree to gnaw and mate, she carries along with her the fungus-carrying mites.3
Once inside the tunnels in the sweet wood, the mites drop off the beetle and the spores drop off the mites. The spores germinate, and fungus threads begin growing on the wood, soon producing new, dark-colored spores which just so happen to be the favorite food of the mites. You see how it is. I’m sure if we look closer there is even more to the story, but I’ll stop there.
So I suppose the beetles are pests. But like every organism they also have a vital life energy, a drive to live. They are not evil, they just are. If you see them only as pests, you have a restricted view of life. They can also be seen in wonderment.
If the acres behind your house were filled with adolescent pine trees, a forester might suggest that you should cut them down now or take the chance that they will become infested with pine beetles: “Your trees are worth a hundred thousand dollars today, but if the bluestain comes in they won’t be worth anything. May as well cut them now; I have an interested buyer. What do you say? Just sign here.”
What foresters usually don’t tell you is that the beetles are less likely to damage pines living in healthy forests with a good mix of tree species and animals such as salamanders, lizards, and birds that look at the beetles not as pests or in wonderment, but as food.
WHEN WE, as individual landowners, decide to cut our forests we reassure ourselves that there is plenty of forest land elsewhere, and, although we have destroyed the habitat we have control over, the forest plants and animals will survive somewhere else. Environmental activists are fond of saying, “There is no such place as away.” Likewise, “There is no such place as somewhere else.” Steve Emmet Maddox, of the organization Restore America’s Estuaries, sums it up succinctly: “Habitats are places where plants and animals live. Change or destroy habitat and you change or destroy the animals that lived there.”4 We need to own up to this. We are responsible for the land. There are many sad illustrations of the “not my fault” syndrome. Here I’ll just discuss one— the fate of the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis).
To understand what happened to the red-cockaded woodpeckers you first have to understand how trees grow and change as they get older. Unlike animals, which can grow in all directions, plants can only grow “lengthwise” and “widthwise.” As trees grow widthwise, the newest cells are the ones on the outside layer, nearest the bark. These young cells, called sapwood, actively transport water and nutrients and keep the tree alive. Every year the tree makes a new layer of cells. The old cells die and the trees use them to store substances such as gums, oils, and resins. The result is that toward the center of the tree there is a darker wood with different properties, the heartwood. If you examine a freshly cut stump you can often see where the sapwood stops and the heartwood begins. If you are a woodworker you are certainly familiar with heartwood because of its density and its beauty. Older branches develop heartwood, too. Loblolly pines have to be at least sixty years old before they have branches large enough to develop heartwood.
There is a fungus (Phellinus pini) that grows only in the heartwood of pine. By feeding on the nutrients in the heartwood the fungus creates a condition with the romantic name “red heart,” in which the heartwood becomes soft. Although red heart does somewhat weaken the structural integrity of the tree, and certainly destroys its commercial value, it attacks only the dead cells, so a pine tree with red heart can still live a very long life.
The fungus is able to gain entry to the heartwood of the tree when a large old branch with heartwood breaks off. How the fungal spores find the stub of a branch with heartwood in the center is still a mystery, but it is probable that they are carried by the wind. The spores that land on the pine heartwood germinate; the spores that land elsewhere die.
After a few years the fungus has spread to the heartwood of the trunk, where it creates a soft, spongy area. Now conditions are perfect for a red-cockaded woodpecker: an old, living pine tree with red heart. Somehow the woodpeckers can tell when a tree has the red heart fungus; perhaps it has a slightly different sound to a tapping woodpecker. The dominant male in a group of woodpeckers will make the final decision on exactly where the new nest cavity should be. Digging out a cavity can take from one to six years. When, at last, there is a cavity with a small entrance hole and a large space in the center of the tree lined with soft wood chips to hold the eggs, the bird finishes by pecking holes in the bark around the entrance hole. The holes in the bark cause the living pine tree to exude a sticky, resinous sap that deters snakes and annoying insects from entering the nest.
Woodpecker pairs mate for life. During the day the male and female take turns incubating the eggs; the male sits on the eggs throughout the night. The pair will return to the same nest year after year until the tree no longer produces sap … or until it has been cut down.
Researchers in Georgia positioned automatic cameras at thirty-one red-cockaded woodpecker nest cavities.5 They collected and examined photos for five years to see what the adult birds ate and what food items they brought to their nestlings. The cameras showed that the birds were eating all kinds of beetles, including pine bark beetles, but the most common prey item, and the one they fed to their young, was cockroaches. You have to love a bird that eats cockroaches.
In the years before massive logging, red-cockaded woodpeckers were fairly common along the East Coast and inland toward the Mississippi River. But now—mostly, it is thought, because almost all of our large pines are gone—the birds are found in only 1 percent of their original range. They used to live in Maryland, but no longer. And they are no longer found in New Jersey or Tennessee or Missouri. But that’s no one’s fault, is it? I sometimes wonder if the birds aren’t somehow having the last laugh. We cut down their trees, destroyed their habitat, put buildings where the forests used to be; and now our cities are overrun with cockroaches.