Journal of Writing & Environment

The timberman steps back and turns off the saw. And just for a moment, in the hush, the tree pauses. Its pillar of a trunk tips slowly, ponderously, still uncertain, then leans with growing speed into a perfect, unwavering arc, its boughs whistling in the rush of air until all its might crashes to earth. It bounces once, rippling up the trunk, shudders, and, finally, lies still.


The shock startles us even though we are tensed for it. We feel it against our ears and through our bodies and then in the reverberations rolling down the valley and shuddering outward across the granite ledge beneath us. We wait while the impact rumbles away. In the quivering silence we could whoop or holler. Instead, we stand rooted as if expecting the throbbing underfoot to return like an aftershock.


The timberman breaks the spell: he puts down his chainsaw and removes his hard hat. “Some rot in this one,” he calls up to us after looking at the stump. Then he starts down the length of the great trunk, and we follow, dumbly. We pause at the stump, too, breathing in the sweetness from the spray of sawdust at our feet and staring at the dark cavity a couple inches across near the core. I reach out cautiously to the black ring around the hollow as though the tree might flinch. No pitch has oozed out, yet, onto the cut. The wood is slightly warm still from the friction of the saw, and the dry rot crumbles beneath my fingers. Perhaps they can still use this tree for lumber. It’s more than two feet across at the stump and seems too impossibly solid to be pulped for something as ephemeral as newsprint or paper towels.   But the hole bores up through the trunk, as well, maybe all the way to the slender top. Eventually the tree might have snapped off forty or fifty feet up in a storm. White pines are notorious with insurance agents and arborists.


Still, I cannot help but wonder how long this pine would have stood, even with its slow disintegration at the heart. Woodpeckers would have taken to it, hammering their prehistoric heads, flooding the hollow chamber with their percussive pulse, chiseling holes where owls might later nest. Even when its bark began falling off, bats and small birds could tuck themselves in between the trunk and remaining bark. And eventually, raccoons and porcupines could build their winter dens in it.


Foresters claim white pines can live up to four hundred years. Theoretically, we could walk in the shade of trees that sprouted before the Pilgrims waded ashore, when gray wolves and cougar still prowled these forests, when the rivers and mountains were called by other names in long-forgotten tongues.   But it’s hard to grasp time that extends far behind or beyond what we know from our own existence. Four hundred years of life isn’t the same as four hundred dollars or four hundred miles or anything we can easily measure or perceive. We try to make sense of it by counting back sixteen or twenty generations or by pinning a white pine’s lifespan to an historical time line. It occurs to me that with our relatively brief human life of seven or eight decades, four hundred years may be almost as inconceivable a span of time as the Paleozoic age or the “more recent” Pleistocene period when glaciers last covered this land.


Perhaps if we had even just one example of a four-hundred-year-old white pine, two hundred and fifty feet tall and five or six feet wide, we would find it easier to comprehend. But no such tree exists any more. We can only imagine it. And for historic reference, we have only the terse, awed accounts of a few early European settlers who struggled to convey the sight of white pines whose circumference had expanded, ring by ring, for three centuries or more and whose trunks stretched upwards to heights unfathomed by people arriving from a continent long -since devoid of such trees. We read of the surveyors and explorers who scaled them to look out over the hardwood canopy to get their bearings or of the groomed, park-like appearance of the pine forests where Indians burned the underbrush to facilitate hunting and travel. Most vivid are the reports of sailors off the New World coast trembling in fear as their ships were enveloped in “brimstone” plumes: clouds of the white pine’s sulfur-colored pollen blown far out to sea.


But the early accounts are disappointing in their paucity of description. The first European chroniclers of the New World did not tell us how light penetrated the white pine canopy at dawn or high noon. Or how the wind soughed through a white pine forest that seemed to stretch as far in every direction as the wind blew. How did centuries of pine pitch and decayed needles and fallen branches smell in the cool and damp of the understory? What did it do to the human soul to walk for miles through a land of rooted giants or to tremble at them slashing the heavens in a storm?


Instead, most consideration of the “primal forest” focused on the value and practical purposes of the timberlands. In particular, the earliest settlers saw in white pine the answer to the British navy’s desperate need for mast wood.   Straight, relatively rot -resistant, lighter -weight, and more buoyant than many other woods, white pine was well -suited to a life at sea. Most important, the height and availability of American white pine precluded the need for splicing together masts, as the Royal Navy had done with the Scots pine they were forced to import from the Baltic.  Thus, in the 1600s, British agents combed New England’s river valleys for appropriately sized white pines that could be felled, dragged to the river’s edge by sleds and teams of oxen, and floated downstream to special barges built for the sole purpose of transporting the timbers overseas to the Navy’s shipyards.


Even by the late 1600s, as settlers pushed inland and laid open the forests, the Crown realized the need to conserve the sylvan riches of the New World and forbid the colonists from cutting any white pine more than twenty-four inches in diameter. Agents branded select trees with the “King’s arrow”—a blaze formed from three slashes of an ax–—, and fines of one hundred pounds were levied on those unlucky enough to be caught in violation of the Pine Acts. Sawmill owners, in particular, took offense to the laws; many complied only in that they cut floorboards to a width of twenty-three inches. In general, colonial opposition to the imperial Pine Acts proved a tinderbox for the sorts of resistance, passive and violent, that inflamed passions prior to the Revolution.


The British Navy was but one destination for the white pines, though. Outside the river valleys, pine forests gave way as emigrants built saw mills at the farthest outposts and turned timber into beams, shingles, bedposts, fence posts, and matchsticks. Along the seaboard, American lumber merchants profited handsomely from the widespread export of the valuable, virgin timbers. And all across the region, forests yielded to fire in the effort to clear fields, warm hearths, and produce potash and pearl ash from centuries of arboreal growth. Also, by the early nineteenth century, demand for wool and the introduction of merino sheep led to more clearing of woodlands. Sheep soon ranged the hilltops while cattle grazed the lowlands. By the mid-nineteenth century, the forests of New England were gone in most places.


By the early twentieth century, only a few stands of  “original growth” white pine survived, usually in ravines and other inaccessible or untillable spots where the trees grew undisturbed for centuries. Now even those scattered remnants have been toppled by hurricanes or humans. The oldest white pines we can hope to find might be one hundred and seventy years old, the beneficiaries of neglect and the forgotten vanguards of another geographic transformation in New England.


Today, the oldest white pines are often hidden away in shady corners of the woods where stone walls and barbed wire still lace the undergrowth, reminding us that sheep and cattle once grazed and plows once scored the fields where trees now grow in profusion. In the second half of the nineteenth century, many farmers gave up on the rocky, thin soil of New England and cast their eyes westward or toward the burgeoning cities. And where there is abundant light and little interference, the white pine is an impatient, opportunistic species; millions of them forged a head start in the farms’ waning years, taking advantage of livestock’s preference for sweeter or more palatable fare over the prickly, pitchy shoots that sprouted in the meadows and pastures. When the farmers abandoned their fields and grasslands, sold off stock, and ceased haying, the white pines surged into the vacancy. They thrilled to the open light and seeded the surrounding land with their progeny. By 1900, much of New England was reforested by pasture-sized plots of leggy white pine.


If our estimates are accurate, though, the oldest trees on our property had not yet taken root by 1900, perhaps because the land was reasonably good along the top of this river valley. Farmers held out longer here than in other places, maintaining open land for orchards and grazing. It wasn’t until sometime in the first few decades of the new century, when many of the pastures were left to their own devices, that the white pines finally got their footing and raced each other skyward, their precocious height belying their youth. Someone spared the young pines when the house was built at the top of the knoll in the 1960s, though at the time their crowns must have blocked the view eastward. Today we can watch the sun rise through the white pines’ branchless trunks, and the canopy is high above the house with many of the trees reaching a hundred feet.


But as we discover, a hundred feet of pine that appears lithe and slender rising into the air seems far bulkier laid out along the ground. We walk the length of the tree’s trunk down into the meadow where it fell, running our fingers along the furrows and irregularly shaped scales of bark—the exclusive realm of squirrels and birds–until we reach the debris of branches and needles. Once organized in stacked whorls that stretched out of our sight into the space above, the limbs now lie exposed like the wreck of something glorious and complex and immense. In some places, branches are accordioned, mounded several feet deep in the grass; in others, they have shattered into a crisscrossed jumble. Some branches stick up at awkward angles from the earth like colossal pins where they have been driven deep into the meadow. We will have to cut those off at the ground.

From the ruins of the pine’s crown, we look back into the woods to the space the tree filled so recently. I think of Thoreau’s pained account of witnessing a lone white pine cut to the ground on a winter day in 1851. A rarity in Massachusetts where most of the forests were already logged, the two-hundred-year-old tree stood mast-like and unlichened on the hillside where it might have remained for another century at least. Thoreau watched in agony as sawyers cut through the trunk—four feet in diameter, he guessed,–—reducing the noble tree to lumber. He mourned the loss of the fish hawk’s eyrie and the squirrel’s nest.  Even more, he grieved over the aerial void that would not be filled again for two centuries, if ever—an interstice he could hardly bear.


But the circumstances here are different today. The trees on this parcel are younger, even-aged, and close-packed. Most of this land is forested, again. And where this trunk once stood, the sky has already, without a whisper, reclaimed the canopy space above and the narrow fissure in the tree line. If the timberman didn’t remove any more trees, the surrounding branches would soon reach across and close the gap in a few seasons.

The timberman has only just started, though. The previous owners of the house cleared very few trees during their four decades here, and the ring of white pine on the knoll tightened around the house over the years. From inside, the sky was mostly lost to the evergreen canopy, and on all but the hottest summer days, the white pines’ shade felt murky. Finally, a storm snapped off several trees close to the house, and, alarmed, we committed to widening the ring and opening the view. The timberman marked the condemned trees with a streak of blue paint and arranged for an acquaintance in the logging business to haul away the timber to a local mill.


The timberman wastes no time while he is here. His hours are limited since he works up North during the week, clearing the miles of power lines stretching down from Canada. He moves deliberately, deciding the order in which to cut, figuring where best to drop each one, and sizing up which way “the sail,” as he calls the white pine’s branches, will pull it.  We wonder aloud to each other how many thousands of trees he has cut. His face beneath the tan line of his hardhat is weathered like a farmer’s, and his body moves with the sureness and limber strength of a man well -practiced in his labors who, in middle -age, has never suffered a desk job or serious injury. He wears heavy boots and gloves and orange chaps dulled by hundreds of hours of chainsaw grease and sap.


Having waited for us to examine the first downed tree, the timberman resumes his work. He puts on earplugs and safety goggles, again, then takes one pull on the chainsaw’s starter grip, and the air is rent by the feverish caterwaul of the saw. With a comfort that seems incompatible with the machine’s fury, he wields the saw before him and, in two quick, angled cuts to the trunk, frees a wedge about a foot off the ground, leaving a mouth-like notch on the front of the pine. The whole tree will collapse into that opening as it falls. We take our cue and retreat up the hill to the house when the timberman steps around to the back of the tree and feeds the blade into the bark. In a few seconds, the previous year’s ring is ripped and scattered; soon, whole shredded decades are spat out and mingled indiscriminately across the ground.


I think of the prolonged effort that cutting such a tree once required of a sawyer kneeling in the gathering sawdust. He had more time to consider each band of a tree’s life, to wonder what it had lived through as the saw pulled deeper into the tree’s past, closer to its pith year. In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s meditation on cutting up an old oak takes us back a couple of generations to an era when the tools at hand were a newly sharpened bucksaw and wedges instead of a chainsaw, when a sawyer could hear his own breathing and sounds of the forest over the rhythmic rasp of his work. In that less frenetic setting, Leopold had time to reflect on the tree’s silent epic of bounty and want, destruction and renewal that stretched well back into the previous century. He pondered human events—the 1929 stock market crash or the Chicago Fire of 1871—that left no trace in the wood. And he recalled the natural disasters—the Dust Bowl droughts, the “Big Sleet” of 1922, and nineteenth century winters that froze the earth like stone. Still, Leopold marveled, his oak withstood it all and every year “laid down good wood” in a new, concentric ring.


The thought of Aldo Leopold’s oak makes me curious about the age of our pines and what they oversaw in their years on this slope. But for the rest of the afternoon I resist the urge to count tree rings and, instead, watch from the porch as the timberman drops the trees, one by one, while the house shudders with every impact. Trees that stood unobtrusively a few hours before are soon splayed out all around us, a heaped and smothering barricade. From time to time we try, but fail, to pull ourselves away from the destruction. Then close to dusk, the timberman clears a path down the driveway through the debris. His saw goes quiet, finally, the truck pulls away until tomorrow, and we are left in silence.


Before the daylight is completely gone, we venture out, as if emerging from shelter after a storm. We pick our way through the wreckage and climb cautiously over trunks to a few of the pine stumps that aren’t buried in the slash. To satisfy my curiosity, we count their rings in the fading twilight and find that the smaller stumps are between seventy and eighty years old, the larger stumps closer to ninety.


Much of the land in sight of these trees grew up into forest during those seventy to ninety years. And along with the expanding woodlands, wild animals such as fisher cats, barred owls, deer, and the wood thrush, returned to this area and may have used our trees for shelter or food. At the same time, other species all but vanished, including New England cottontails, indigo buntings, and meadowlarks. The elms and chestnut trees disappeared from the landscape, too, the victims of uncontainable disease. Even the white pine itself was threatened during those years by pine blister, an invasive fungus that drained the trees’ sap through rusty cankers.


The age of our trees also means that some victims of the timberman’s saw survived a much greater threat than pine blister: the hurricane of 1938, a late September storm that transfigured New England. Tidal surge and ruinous surf battered the coast, sweeping entire shoreline communities into the sea and making navigational charts useless. New England’s many rivers, already high from heavy rains the week before, washed away train tracks and fall crops, bridges and livelihoods in swirling mud and debris. Wind gusts well over 100 one hundred miles per hour toppled church steeples and pulverized leaves into a green, airborne paste. And everywhere the trees fell splintered and upended, cutting off roads, snapping power lines, and crashing through homes they had sheltered for decades. A total of six hundred thousand acres of New England’s forests were lost in a few hours.


More than half of the windthrow was pine, and the government estimated that over a third of all white pine in New England was damaged or destroyed. The decimation included nearly the entire stand of “primeval” white pine preserved in New Hampshire’s Pisgah ForestState Park: two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old trees lay prostrate, the ruins piled four to ten feet deep. Some of the ancient trees at Pisgah were snapped off, but most blew over, their massive root systems wrenched out of the saturated earth and suspended like the legs of giant sea creatures amidst the wreckage.


The disproportionately heavy toll on white pine was due both to their height and to their “old field” legacy. By 1938, the dense stands of white pine on abandoned, nineteenth-century farms had grown tall, upwards of a hundred feet. They stretched far above the hardwood canopy, where they caught the winds’ full force. To add to their vulnerability, their root systems were often stunted due to their crowded conditions; they uprooted more easily. Survivors of the hurricane tended to be young trees or trees growing in the open whose roots extended further or trees with the good fortune to grow in areas sheltered from the storm’s southeasterly winds.  (Bushwhackers in New England’s forests can still come across hurricane windthrow from 1938, identified by the rotting boles’ northwesterly orientation.)


The aftermath of the 1938 hurricane was also part of the white pine’s tale. Immediately after the storm, the U. S. Forest Service formed the New England Forest Emergency Office to reduce the threat of wildfire and to recover some of the timber value of the region’s woodlands. Laborers from the Civilian Conservation Corps were dispatched to camps where they built logging roads into the forests, dragged out more than 1.5 billion board feet of timber, and burned acres upon acres of slash. Landowners all over New England did the same.


Subsequently, no major forest fires erupted, due primarily to salutary weather in the years immediately following the hurricane. Lumber mills gradually cut the surplus of salvaged wood, some of it used eventually for wartime construction. And most important for the future composition of New England’s forests, hardwood saplings surged into the arboreal void left in the hurricane’s wake. Because hardwoods such as oak and maple sprout readily from a root or stump, they overcame the damage of the post-hurricane logging and burning efforts more rapidly than the white pines, which regenerate from seed. Also, with the destruction of the white pine canopy, the mixed hardwoods that once bided their time in the shadowy understory, grew rapidly to dominance, shutting out the less shade-tolerant white pine. Once again, the white pine watched its day come and go.


Of course, the white pine did not give up its place entirely, as our small grove and others all over this area attest.  Though our proximity to the east of the hurricane’s path and our orientation on a South-facing hillside suggest the potential for severe damage in 1938, we have no vestigial evidence of destruction: no rotting boles pointing to the northwest nor basins in the forest floor from which the trees’ roots were wrested. Perhaps the forest here was new enough to escape the worst. In any case, some of the young pine—ten or fifteen years old at the time—survived, as my count of the trees’ rings affirms. Over the years they seeded others and rose up around the house and along the edge of the meadows, surviving in spots where the sun could reach them but the mowers couldn’t. And always close behind them, lurking in the shadows, grew the hardwoods. It occurs to me that we’ve now provided the oak, cherry, maple, and beech the time and space they’ve been waiting for.



*  *  *


Weeks later, the stumps around the house are still fresh and bright amidst the dead pine needles and scuffed earth. The cuts have not yet cicatrized, though but pitch has oozed onto the outer rings of the pines forming a sticky crust. On clear nights, the stumps glow in the moonlight. I can see them from the bedroom window and am reminded of flying over rural New England once at nightfall; below, the earth was dark already, but out of the inkiness, every little pond and lake and waterway shone pewter blue with the reflection of the still-light sky above.


The children counted the stumps recently, marking each with chalk as it was tallied while they tried to leap from one to another. They found seventy stumps in the half-acre, horseshoe-shaped clearing around the house. Most were pine, though a birch and several spindly, enterprising red maples and wild cherries seized their chance years ago near the southern edge of the pine grove where just enough sunlight sustained them. The timberman cut the hardwoods into two-foot lengths for us, and we stacked them in rows, four or five logs high, to dry until we can split them for firewood.


The logging truck made three trips for the pine timbers, each time backing all the way up our dirt road with an attached trailer. From the cab, the driver operated the built-in grapple, swinging and lowering the facile claw over a twenty-foot section of trunk, grasping the bole around the middle, and swinging it back around into the rack on the trailer with the same ease a chef might cut and serve a dessert.  When a log was out of the grapple’s reach, the timberman tied a thick rope around it and the grapple seized the rope, dragging the log until it was close enough to handle.


But even after three loads of timber wound their way down our road and out of sight, a wasteland of slash—all of the branches and worthless sections of trunk too crooked or short or rotted–—was left behind. The timberman chipped load after load from the yard and driveway and dumped it all along the road embankment. In the meadow, we waded into the heaped and shattered crowns of the pines, cutting into pieces what we couldn’t move and dragging tons of debris into burn piles to wait for winter rains and snow. Finally, with the help of a neighbor’s truck, we hauled sections too big to chip or burn down into the woods at the bottom of the meadow.


With only the stumps remaining, I wonder how long it will take for them to rot away. The timberman isn’t sure: “Seven or eight years maybe?” he says. But a forestry guide states otherwise: pine stumps the size of ours will take decades to decompose, rotting from the outside in. We planned to plant blueberry bushes among the stumps and their shallow roots, in part to take advantage of the acidic topsoil left behind by the pines but also to conceal the stumps that seem to reproach us in their silent, reduced state. Our scheme feels inadequate now.


Perhaps, after all, we have not improved the place. I wonder if we would have spared the pines if we lived longer and could hope for a shared existence with them. At least, I console myself, we won’t cut down any more, and in our lifetimes, the remaining white pine will grow to significant stature, barring another hurricane. Maybe our children will be in a position to watch over them for another few decades after we’re gone. Beyond that, I hardly dare speculate.


It’s easier not to speculate, easier to see the world only in its present condition, to take our sliver of time for eternity. We can act for our own comfort or safety or necessity in the way that people always have, whether that means clearing trees for lumber, tillage, or the insurance agent. We need not worry about whether the forest will keep renewing itself after repeated cutting. We can look upon glaciers and raptors, honey bees and prairie grasses without the inconvenience of Thoreau’s anguish.


But Thoreau was not one to recoil from speculation. He did not hesitate to look beyond the confines of his own lifetime and see in the white pine the evidence of a much broader existence, a life stretching far behind and, potentially, far ahead in time. For Thoreau, the tree was the vital accumulation of two hundred years cut short. With a clarity that pained him, he saw its connectedness to the squirrels and the fish hawks and all the life around it, including himself. And he knew better than anyone that the lumberjack was destroying what time might not be able to restore. Why, Thoreau asked, did the village bell not toll? Why no procession of mourners?


Aldo Leopold would have taken a place among the mourners had he lived a century earlier. Like Thoreau, Leopold revered a tree for its origins in another time. His oak had survived, unscarred by the human tragedies and years of want inscribed in our history books. It withstood, unaware, the passing of our generations. Yet in the tree’s mute rings laid down every year for better or worse, Leopold read a rich local history, an “integrated transect of a century” bearing evidence of intersections within the natural world that are often forgotten in a human lifespan. For him, a tree was a record of a place over time, revealing a story we don’t otherwise remember.


More than ever, we need those stories, both universal and intimately local, that include us but are not exclusively ours. We need life that endures, that embodies time outside of our own, that helps us to recognize, as Thoreau and Leopold did, what remains of the past and what doesn’t in the place we inhabit. Like the early surveyors and explorers of this land who once looked out from the majestic heights of the white pine to get their bearings, we need the wider perspective that the great trees offer. May the white pine grow tall once more.  May its yearly rings, accrued across our generations, again tell the story of centuries.