Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forestby Lawrence S. Earley
Covering 92 million acres from Virginia to Texas, the longleaf pine ecosystem was, in its prime, one of the most extensive and biologically diverse ecosystems in North America. Today these magnificent forests have declined to a fraction of their original extent, threatening such species as the gopher tortoise, the red-cockaded woodpecker, and the Venus fly-trap.
Covering 92 million acres from Virginia to Texas, the longleaf pine ecosystem was, in its prime, one of the most extensive and biologically diverse ecosystems in North America. Today these magnificent forests have declined to a fraction of their original extent, threatening such species as the gopher tortoise, the red-cockaded woodpecker, and the Venus fly-trap. Conservationists have proclaimed longleaf restoration a major goal, but has it come too late? In Looking for Longleaf, Lawrence S. Earley explores the history of these forests and the astonishing biodiversity of the longleaf ecosystem, drawing on extensive research and telling the story through first-person travel accounts and interviews with foresters, ecologists, biologists, botanists, and landowners. For centuries, these vast grass-covered forests provided pasture for large cattle herds, in addition to serving as the world's greatest source of naval stores. They sustained the exploitative turpentine and lumber industries until nearly all of the virgin longleaf had vanished. Looking for Longleaf demonstrates how, in the twentieth century, forest managers and ecologists struggled to understand the special demands of longleaf and to halt its overall decline. The compelling story Earley tells here offers hope that with continued human commitment, the longleaf pine might not just survive, but once again thrive.Covering 92 million acres from Virginia to Texas, the longleaf pine ecosystem was, in its prime, one of the most extensive and biologically diverse ecosystems in North America. Today these magnificent forests have declined to a fraction of their original extent, threatening such species as the gopher tortoise, the red-cockaded woodpecker, and the Venus fly-trap. Lawrence S. Earley explores the history of these forests and the astonishing biodiversity within them, drawing on extensive research and telling the story through first-person travel accounts and interviews with foresters, ecologists, biologists, botanists, and landowners. The compelling story Earley tells here offers hope that with continued human commitment, the longleaf pine might not just survive, but once again thrive.>
Natural Areas Journal
"A welcomed addition on an important topic. . . . Should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of conservation in the South."
Georgia Historical Quarterly
"A history of the southeast, an informative natural history, and a paean to a beautiful tree."
"Lawrence Earley's Looking for Longleaf is such an engaging book that I read it straight through from prologue to epilogue."
Dave Egan, Ecological Restoration
"Richly detailed, impeccably researched and at times controversial: this merits a place alongside Bartram in the library devoted to the South."
Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"A fine, informative read for anyone interested in acquiring a general understanding of this interesting forest ecosystem."
"The decline of the longleaf pine is a complex story, well and thoroughly told by Earley."
"This is the definitive book on longleaf pine. For people curious about biology and history, it is fascinating."
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Looking for LongleafThe Fall and Rise of an American Forest
By Lawrence S. Earley
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat Bartram Saw
A magnificent grove of stately pines, succeeding to the expansive wild plains we had a long time traversed, had a pleasant effect, rousing the faculties of the mind, awakening the imagination by its sublimity, and arresting every active, inquisitive idea, by the variety of the scenery. -William Bartram, Travels (1791)
A longleaf pine forest on a bright day is a light and sound show. There's the verdant ground cover, mostly grasses that sway to each hint of breeze. The forest is open with widely scattered trees, and the early morning sun casts angled shadows from the pine trunks; by midday each tree will be standing in its own small pool of shadow. Here and there, dense groups of young pine saplings gather and the tufts of infant pines are nearly indistinguishable from the wiregrass. Above, the sky burns azure. The sound emanates from the treetops, a low and constant tone like the surf crash of a distant sea. Even on a perfectly still day you may hear this roar in the distance, as if somewhere an individual tree was gathering and amplifying some ambient sound. The great eighteenth-century explorer William Bartram described it as "the solemn symphony of the steady Western breezes, playing incessantly, rising and falling through the thick and wavy foliage."
On a sunny morning in April, I've come to the 200-acre Wade Tract Preserve near Thomasville, Georgia, to walk through an old-growth longleaf pine forest. Old-growth longleaf pine is scattered in small pieces throughout the Southeast, unlike the Pacific Northwest where relatively large tracts of old-growth Douglas fir still exist. The Wade Tract is one of these remnant longleaf forests. It's owned by the Arcadia Plantation and managed, through a conservation easement, by Tall Timbers Research Station just down the road. This rolling country is known as the Red Hills region, where erosion over the eons has carved an originally flat plain into pleasant hills and valleys.
Some of the older longleaf pines have a distinct lean to them, and their tops have flattened with the loss of branches. Longleaf can grow to a ripe old age, about 400 to 500 years. The heights of the trees vary from 50 or 60 feet high in the deepest sands of the Carolina Sandhills to 110 feet or taller in richer soils. Their girth is modest-anything larger than 3 feet in diameter at breast height is really large; many old-growth trees had diameters of less than 2 feet measured at breast height. Longleaf is a beautiful tree, with lower branches that are undulant and graceful and that carry large cones. Its long needles distinguish it among all other pines and give it its name.
On this spring day, the red-headed woodpeckers are in frenzied motion, darting after each other among the pines and drumming incessantly on dead trees. They are mating and establishing territories, displaying the broad, black and white patterns of their wings, their large black bodies and crimson heads.
Grass is the predominant type of plant in this forest. There are possibly dozens of species growing here, although the most common is wiregrass (Aristida stricta). It grows green in spring and summer and turns a vivid gold in fall and winter, in all seasons rippling and bending in the wind. A wildfire ran through the forest three weeks ago, blackening some of the tree trunks and turning their needles a copper color. Yet the wiregrass has already greened out and grown two or three feet high, and the landscape looks scrubbed and fresh.
Across the rolling, parklike landscape of randomly spaced trees the open vista quickly thickens with distant trees. If I ambled off this path and through the wiregrass, past a drain that has thickened with a few shrubby oaks and up the sun-dappled hillside beyond, I'd see another vista just like the last. And then another.
I'm thinking: Perhaps this is what Bartram saw.
Not John Bartram, the famous Pennsylvania botanist to the King of England, friend of Benjamin Franklin, explorer and naturalist, but his son, William. Both Bartrams explored the southeastern United States in the late eighteenth century and wrote about their encounters with the longleaf pine forests. You can find John Bartram's account of their trip in a good research library, although it might prove skimpy reading. "Fine warm morning. Birds singing, fish jumping, and turkies gobbling," he said about one particularly fine day. John's friends and supporters shook their heads over his sketchy travel accounts. One noted that "he did not care to write down his numerous and useful observations.... He is rather backward in writing down what he knows."
Not so William. The younger Bartram accompanied his father on his first journey to the Southeast concluding in 1766 and then, alone this time, covered almost the same itinerary beginning about seven years later. He had been commissioned by London physician and fellow Quaker, Dr. John Fothergill, to collect botanical specimens and make botanical drawings of his travels. From Pennsylvania, he sailed to Charleston and explored the region around Savannah, pushing up the Savannah River to Augusta before continuing south to Florida. He negotiated the St. Johns River by canoe, accompanied an expedition of Indian traders west across Florida, pressed into northern Georgia and the Carolina highlands in Cherokee country, and then made his final trip west to the Mississippi River. Intended to take two years, William's travels actually lasted five (1773-77). Throughout that time he was rarely out of sight of longleaf pine.
William Bartram's account of his trip, originally entitled Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws, published in 1791, provides one of the earliest and most detailed descriptions of the virgin longleaf pine forests, although his literary style takes a while to get used to it. He was a practitioner of the eighteenth-century literary school in which a noun without an adjective is like a man without his pants. Often he seems to overwhelm the scene he's describing with the artificial flowers of his prose: "At cool eve's approach, the sweet enchanting melody of the feathered songsters gradually cease, and they betake themselves to their leafy coverts for security and repose." His father might have said, had he been tempted to say anything at all about such matters, "The birds stopped singing."
Bartram was thirty-nine years old when he began his trip and fifty-two when the book was published, yet Travels has the feel of a young man's book, a young man who has lately slipped the leash of his father's influence and expectations. He writes emotionally about the places he sees, and none of the scenes he witnessed stirred more joy and exuberance in his writing than the pine-covered landscape of northern Florida. On one occasion, he describes his journey in the company of Indian traders from the St. Johns River to the great Indian town of Cuscowilla, near the Alachua Savanna, today known as Payne's Prairie, near Gainesville:
For the first four or five miles we travelled westward, over a perfectly level plain, which appeared before and on each side of us, as a charming green meadow, thinly planted with low spreading Pine trees (P. palustris). The upper stratum of the earth is a fine white crystalline sand, the very upper surface of which being mixed or incorporated with the ashes of burnt vegetables, renders it of sufficient strength or fertility to clothe itself perfectly with a very great variety of grasses, herbage, and remarkably low shrubs.... After passing over this extensive, level, hard, wet savanna, we crossed a fine brook or rivulet; the water cool and pleasant; its banks adorned with varieties of trees and shrubs.... After leaving the rivulet, we passed over a wet, hard, level glade or down, covered with a fine short grass, with abundance of low saw palmetto, and a few shrubby pine trees [and oaks] ... : then the path descends to a wet bay-gale; the ground a hard, fine, white sand, covered with black slush, which continues above two miles, when it gently rises the higher sand hills, and directly after passes through a fine grove of young long-leaved pines. The soil seemed here loose, brown, coarse, sandy loam, though fertile. The ascent of the hill, ornamented with a variety and profusion of herbaceous plants and grasses, particularly amaryllis atamasco, clitoria, phlox, ipomea, convolvulus, verbena corymbosa, ruellia, viola, &c.
It's the "variety of the scenery" that excites Bartram's enthusiasm, what he elsewhere characterizes as "grand diversified scenes." Bartram is describing a varied topography that supports several distinct natural communities: a level plain ("hard, wet savanna") "thinly covered" with longleaf; a creek and its floodplain; a poor rolling country ("a glade or down") covered with grass, shrubs, low pines, and scrub oaks; a shrub bog; sandhills; a grove of young pines; and a "magnificent grove" of "stately pines." Diversity delights Bartram.
From Cuscowilla, he traveled to Talahasochte, an Indian town near present-day Tallahassee, again describing in great detail the variety in the landscape. "Now the pine forests opened to view," he writes as he leaves the wet margins of the savanna. "We left the magnificent savanna and its delightful groves, passing through a level, open, airy pine forest, the stately trees scatteringly planted by nature, arising straight and erect from the green carpet, embellished with various grasses and flowering plants; then gradually ascending the sand hills, we soon came into the trading path to Talahasochte, which is generally, excepting a few deviations, the old Spanish highway to St. Mark's." That night the band camped under a grove of live oaks, "on the banks of a beautiful lake," and the next day they traveled over a rocky ridge on either side of which was "the most dreary, solitary, desert waste I had ever beheld." Bare rocks emerged out of white sand, the grass was scattered, and there were only a few trees. Soon he and his fellows "joyfully" entered a region of level pine forests and savannas "which continued for many miles," with ponds of water visible sparkling through the dark columns of the pines. They ascended again to sand ridges through savannas and open pine forests, negotiating with difficulty through a region dotted with lime-sinks ("cavities or sinks in the surface of the earth"), and camped that night "under some stately Pines, near the verge of a spacious savanna."
The next day the traders descended and continued for miles along a level, flat country over "delightful green savannas" dotted with hammocks of hardwoods. They crossed a wet savanna, a "rapid rivulet," entered more rocky land, and then passed another "extensive savanna, and meadows many miles in circumference" where a herd of Indian horses romped. On one side was a "beautiful sparkling lake." He calls this the best land they had passed through since they left Alachua, featuring a gray, brown, or black loamy soil in the lower portions of the landscape and, on the ridges, "a loose, coarse, reddish sand."
Talahasochte was about ten miles away now. After leaving the "charming savanna and fields," he and his band of traders passed through several miles of "delightful plains and meadows":
We next entered a vast forest of the most stately Pine trees that can be imagined, planted by nature, at a moderate distance, on a level, grassy plain, enamelled with a variety of flowering shrubs, viz. Viola, Ruella infundibuliforma, Amaryllis atamasco, Mimosa sensitiva, Mimosa intsia and many others new to me. This sublime forest continued five or six miles, when we came to dark groves of Oaks, Magnolias, Red bays, Mulberries, &c. through which proceeding near a mile, we entered open fields, and arrived at the town of Talahasochte, on the banks of the Little St. Juan [Suwannee River].
Travels made Bartram famous, and his idealized descriptions of a lost southeastern Eden have stirred the imaginations of generations of readers. His book influenced the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth and the prose of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He might have been even more famous had he accepted Thomas Jefferson's invitation to botanize on the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803.
Bartram wasn't the only one who delighted in the beauty of the longleaf forests and savannas. The Englishman Basil Hall, a man of polite society, traveled with his wife from Norfolk, Virginia, to Mobile, Alabama, in the 1820s. The two journeyed in coaches and on foot, and, like so many other travel narratives of the day, Hall's mixed descriptions of the scenery with comments on southern political and social institutions, especially the institution of slavery. His book, Travels in North America, in the Years 1827 and 1828, vividly describes the great pine forests he and his wife traveled through, as in this account of a journey from Savannah to Macon, Georgia:
Our road, on the 22d of March-if road it ought to be called-lay through the heart of the forest, our course being pointed out solely by blazes, or slices, cut as guiding marks on the sides of the trees. It was really like navigating by means of the stars over the trackless ocean. When we had groped our way in this strange fashion for about ten or twelve miles, we came to a place where the slight trace of a road, in the expressive language of the woods, is said to fork, or split into two.... Off we went again, over roots and stumps, across creeks and swamps, alternately driving up and down the sides of gentle undulations in the ground, which give the name of a rolling country to immense tracts of land in that quarter of the world. The whole surface of such districts is moulded, by what means I know not, into ridges of sandy soil, gently rounded off, nowhere steep or angular, and never continued in one straight line for any great distance. I have often observed the sea in a calm, after a gale of wind, with a surface somewhat similar, only that in the case of these rolling countries the ridges are not so regular in their direction, and are many times larger than any waves I ever saw. They present no corners or abrupt turns; and though crossed by small valleys, these too have their edges dressed off in like manner, as smoothly as could have been managed by the most formal landscape gardener.
For five hundred miles, at the least, we travelled, in different parts of the South, over a country of this description, almost every where consisting of sand, feebly held together by a short wiry grass, shaded by the endless forest.
Excerpted from Looking for Longleaf by Lawrence S. Earley Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Lawrence S. Earley, former editor of Wildlife in North Carolina magazine, is a writer and photographer living in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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Pads back to camp.