My people, as farmers will, looked at the moonscape and said, “It’s cleared. We might as well plant it.”
The sawmill had left nothing behind. The land was nude of trees, underbrush, everything. Its surface was grooved like corduroy by the weight of heavy logs being dragged to the blade.
It was a brand-new thing, this bare land replacing virgin forests that had stretched from Virginia to Texas. The race to turn 500-year-old pines into money was over. It had been the American South’s Gold Rush.
But perhaps all of this goes without saying. Without money to be made, why cut the trees? Why build a mill? Why build hundreds of them?
Just after the first world war, someone built a house on this spot, right where the mill had stood. Later, someone else tore that house down and built a better one. My parents bought the new house, happy to have four acres dotted with pine trees that, though they seemed tremendous by modern standards, could not have been more than fifty years old.
My sister and I learned to braid by playing with three-stranded pine needles. We plucked crisp, empty cicada shells off bark that flaked off in thick plaques. We earned pocket money raking straw and picking up fallen cones. We learned that there is a trick to handling a ripe, open pine cone without snagging your hands on its barbs, but there’s no trick to handling the ones that are green and tight-shut. It can’t be done. You might as well kick a tight, green pine cone in the direction you want it to go, unless you’re determined to bloody your hands.
There was so much money bound up in the virgin longleaf pines that the loggers built a network of railroad tracks just to carry their three-foot-thick logs to market. The railcars must have been fragrant with pine sap. It would have dripped from the raw surfaces of new-cut wood and coated every available surface. The bracing, edgy scent of resin must have clung to whole counties—no, states—as the trees said good-bye.
Nobody remembers how many sawmills it took to flatten them all. I know this, because I can find no record of this one that I care about. Yet I know it was here, deep in south Mississippi.
It left its mark for longer than you’d think. Fifty years after the loggers moved on, there was still a mammoth pile of sawdust. Makeshift logging roads wove through second growth trees, marked by rotting half-timbers that had served as makeshift paving.
There was a swath through our lawn where grass didn’t want to grow. It marked the path of the rail spur that had taken the sawn logs to market, like a linear fairy ring.
For nearly fifty years, I watched the dead trees’ children grow still more tremendous. It is hard to stand at the base of a mature pine tree and see its top. Leaning back and craning your neck does not help. Even a longleaf pine’s cones are monstrous. They look like pine cones designed for a fake tree at Disneyland, perfectly pyramidal and as long as a small woman’s forearm.
As soon as we moved into the house, my mother began buying azalea cuttings at the dime store, six-inch sticks with maybe ten leaves each. Azaleas have a relationship with longleaf pines that is like perfect human love. Each is happy where the other is, so happy that they never stop growing more beautiful with age. My mother’s azaleas grew to be the size of school buses, and they clustered happily around the trees’ fat bores, fuchsia and magenta and baby-girl pink. Mama went into the woods and dug dogwood and redbud saplings for her garden, even wild shell-pink azaleas. Her woodland plants all loved the dappled shade of the tall pines with the same orgiastic passion.
A time came when I didn’t really need an address, because when given just a hint of where I lived, people would say, “Oh, the house with the yard. I see your mother out there all the time.”
The most comforting dream I ever had was set under those trees with a breeze moving their moonlit needles. The house was long sold, and my father had been gone longer than that, but in my dream I was home. The back door opened and Daddy strode across the porch. As he took me in his arms, I woke with a single blissful sentence in my head: “I know what heaven is like.”
It hasn’t been so many years since that dream. I remembered it last year as I made the long trip to my hometown for a visit. I never realized how many people I knew until I moved away. Now, they’re everywhere, in the bookstore, in the grocery aisles, on downtown sidewalks shaded by broad-limbed and leafy hardwoods.
One by one, they came to me, shaking their heads and unable to say much beyond, “The trees. I can’t believe what those people did to your trees.”
There was no help for it. I had to drive out and see for myself. Here I stand.
The road to my childhood home (sitting on the site of another home before it and the site of a sawmill before that) is still a lovely one, curving through trees that have grown for the century since the loggers left. Along that road, nothing is materially different from my memories.
This is not true when I reach my destination.
I pull over, because I can’t focus on the road while I’m taking in this scene. All the trees, second-growth but still tremendous, have been taken. This logging crew left nothing behind but a house protruding from bare ground. The azaleas, dogwoods, redbuds, pine straw, even the pine cones—all of it has been bulldozed away.
The destruction seems without purpose. Are the home’s owners newcomers, so spooked by hurricanes that they destroyed trees that stood through Katrina and Camille and would in all likelihood have stood four more centuries? Is a lawn consisting solely of acres of unrelieved turf grass their idea of grace and beauty?
There is no way to know without asking them, and I don’t intend to knock on their door. Seeing what they’ve done, I can’t imagine that we even speak the same language. There is nothing to do but stand and look, oddly comforted by the knowledge that all the things I have lost come back to me in my dreams.
For days, I will move through town, nodding hello to people I barely remember. They will stop in their tracks, like funeral guests confronted by someone bereaved.
“Have you seen?” they will want to know.
Time and again, they will ask “Did you see what they did to your trees?” as if they were still mine when they fell.