Into the Wild

Tracking the Lost Conifer, Western White Pine

Naturalist's Notebook


“What pines? Where are these pines?” asked my birding friend after I mentioned I’d been getting to know western white pine, the forgotten conifer of our Key Peninsula forest.

“Show me one.”

I could not. There were none to be found in the forest where we walked.

So, I tried to describe a white pine’s elegance, its supple limbs and vibrant silver-green needles like a horsehair brush to the touch, its negative spaces layered into the sky like a linocut. Such elegance. I’m not sure she believed me. Nor would I have before I discovered a vein of white pines near my home. They are nothing like our bristly shore pine.

The discovery began in the moss of an old pasture along a wetland. I stepped on a strange long pinecone. Slightly curved, its scales were tipped with white resin. I held it. Like the rest of the tree, a white pine’s cones are gentle to the touch. Soon I found its source, the one standing dead tree in the pasture, with bark studded with loads of crystallized sap. A few cones still clung to its barren crown.

That wouldn’t do. I pressed into the forest. Soon I found a few smaller pines aglow with health, growing in deep shade of Douglas fir. Strange. My investigations continued over several months and finally, over a rise and just past the twisted wreck of a logging truck, along the next wetland west — white pine likes moisture — I found a large one. Very large. I had not known. White pine was once the equal of any other species on the peninsula. This one is three feet through the trunk. Moss climbs it 30 feet high. I cannot guess its height. It is a monument.

A white pine is a joy to be around. A joy, too, for the woodworker, for its wood is extraordinarily soft and light for its strength. It does not warp or twist. It can be carved straight through the grain.

Few people now know this, but white pine built America from matchsticks to mansions. Eastern white pine, a close cousin to our species, was the heart and soul of 300 years of American lumbering. The towering trees grew in snowy areas, along rivers, where they could be cut and hauled by manual labor.

Like tea, white pine fomented revolution. The British Navy sent timber cruisers into the colonies to put blazes on the biggest trees to claim them as masts for its ships. The settlers, who had little but forest with which to attempt to make a living, rankled then revolted.

Logging, milling, slashing, burning, attempting farms, moving on — such was the north woods formula for much of American history. Settlers could be just as reckless as timber barons. Fires burned. Cuts were not replanted. Soil, abused, was lost.

After two-and-a-half centuries and seven-plus generations, the loss of what had once seemed limitless inspired timber cruisers to look far to the west — all the way in Michigan — where they found, as Annie Proulx described in the novel “Barkskins,” “huge trees four and five feet in diameter, the tiered branches resembling great green pagodas a hundred and fifty feet tall.” A white pine bonanza again. Flawless virgin timber.

Again, the story repeated. American culture and wisdom was by then so ingrained with the plunder of old growth rather than the cultivation of landscapes and their generational cycles that what could have been an elegant associate, useful for a hundred homestead tasks, fast to regrow after selective cutting and judicious fire, instead flew before the saw and filled the coffers of distant millionaires.

By the time the axes reached northern Idaho, the core of western white pine’s range, and found this western version of America’s legendary timber tree to be even larger, giving over 50 thousand board-feet per acre, everything was poised to accelerate. Railroads spread through the Pacific Northwest’s Inland Empire. Machinery followed. It was rough ground for the just-sown seed of the Forest Service to land.

In 1910, the situation erupted. Gale-force winds swept hundreds of small fires into the biggest forest fire in American history, a stunning stampede of exploding trees and settlements that incinerated 3 million acres.

Poet dean of American trees Donald Culross Peattie argues that blame for the fire must be as widespread as the small fires that joined to create it: railroads, loggers, settlers, landholders, all were caught up in a culture of rush and waste.

By and large it was a turning point for American forests. The Forest Service emerged as a hero and groundwork was laid for a national conservation ethic based on sustained yield, a story told in Timothy Egan’s book “The Big Burn.”

But something else happened in 1910 that would decimate far more western white pines than fire. A shipment of pines brought a fungus called blister pine rust to America. In the century since, 80% to 90% of white pines have been killed. The rust is bizarre. Jumping between two hosts — white pines and gooseberries and currants in the genus Ribes — it transforms five times via spores of five types. When scientists decoded its life history, the Forest Service created a national campaign and niche industry to eradicate Ribes from America. For decades the propagation and planting of any of the shrubs was banned, though many were commercially grown fruits in Europe. The effort failed. Ribes are hardy plants. Blister rust spores spread for many miles on the wind. In 1966 the ban was lifted.

And today? Trees that survive the blister rust often pass their resistance on. Western white pine carries ample genetic diversity within its stands, not just across its range, and as generations of trees pass — often with the help of plant breeders — more and more white pines are surviving.

Perhaps again western white pine will become a feature of our Key Peninsula forests. All of us who would love it; the builders, woodcarvers, and forest bathers, the habitat heroes, have been robbed of this compatriot by — what?

You can’t blame one thing. White pine has been hit by the full turbulence of the past two centuries.

And maybe it was never common here in the first place. A vein like the one I’ve found, this ghostly streak of trees along a long glacial claw mark of a wetland, might be just like a vein of quartz, a rune pinched off at both ends, its life forms rendered unreadable by overlapping histories like waves. Yet still here.