Junior Naturalist: Red Pine, White Pine

Several people pointed out an error in my recent post on identifying trees in and around the White Mountains. I correctly noted that the soft needles of the white pine come in clusters of five, the same letters as are in “white.” It’s not true, however, that red pines have three needles in a cluster; they generally come in pairs, two to a cluster.

I checked that fact, after the fact, in several nature guides, and in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America by Donald Culross Peattie. True to its title, the book covers much more than identification; it's elegantly written, full of wisdom, and knowledgeable about the place of trees in American history. Here’s Peattie on the red pine: “From aboriginal times to the present, the Red Pine has been the companion of the graceful White Pine, that queen of the forest. Like a consort to a queen, seldom mentioned, the rugged Red Pine has shared much of its fate.”

He is even more eloquent on the queenly white pine, which he gives pride of place in the book’s first chapter. No other tree, asserts Peattie, has played so great a role in the life and history of the American people. Its nearly pure stands, intermixed only with red pine, once covered most of Pennsylvania and New York outside the Adirondacks. A white pine measured in the early years of Dartmouth College stood 240 feet tall. No tree on the East Coast approaches such a height today.

The towering, straight tree supplied the British navy for 150 years and enriched those in the colony, like the Wentworth family of New Hampshire, who received the Crown’s timber contracts. White pine became one point in the infernal triangle of slave trade, along with African slaves and sugar and rum. The first flag of the American Revolutionary forces bore the emblem of a white pine.

“In the three hundred years of its exploitation,” Peattie writes, “White Pine built this nation, literally and figuratively.” Covered bridges were built of the light, yet strong and long-lasting wood. Early major bridges and aqueducts, too, made use of its durability. By 1805, white pine had been used to build half a million American homes.

Henry David Thoreau saw the white-pine lumber industry in its final century of dominance. During a trip to Maine in 1846, recounted in Ktaadn, Thoreau foresaw the end of the great tree’s reign:
Think how stood the white-pine tree on the shore of Chesuncook, its branches soughing with the four winds, and every individual needle trembling in the sunlight, — think how it stands with it now, — sold, perchance, to the New England Friction-Match Company! There were in 1837, as I read, two hundred and fifty saw-mills on the Penobscot and its tributaries above Bangor, the greater part of them in this immediate neighborhood, and they sawed two hundred millions of feet of boards annually. To this is to be added the lumber of the Kennebec, Androscoggin, Saco, Passamaquoddy, and other streams. … The mission of men there seems to be, like so many busy demons, to drive the forest all out of the country, from every solitary beaver-swamp and mountain-side, as soon as possible.

Peattie ends his retelling of “the glory and the tragedy of the White Pine epic” by noting that public outcry arose too late to save virgin White Pine forests in the Northeast or Midwest. But public opinion “made itself felt just in time,” he writes, “to save the great forests of the Western States,” and to back Theodore Roosevelt in his battles for timber conservation.

He doesn’t forget the humble red pine, either. The tree was often cut and sold alongside the white pine, and put to the same uses. “Serving more or less anonymously under the other tree’s banner,” Peattie writes, “Red Pine went to glory with it — to fame, and almost to extinction as a commercial tree.”

Learn more

Death of a Pine Tree,” Henry David Thoreau
Ktaadn,” Henry David Thoreau
A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, Donald Culross Peattie (Google Books)
Giants in the Land, Diana Applebaum, is a superb children's introduction to the history of the white pine in America, accompanied by woodcuts worthy of their subject.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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