I-75 in Georgia or I-95 anywhere south of central Virginia look like such a landscaping project put into years of growth, and a nearly solid wall of Loblolly Pines (Pinus Taeda) screen off the northern tourists and other thru-travelers from the local world. Janisse Ray even insisted that this was their purpose in her masterpiece Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Janisse, you see, loves all the spires of her native forests down in Georgia, but just as I have a particular weakness and reverence for the Eastern White Pine (Pinus Strobus), so does Janisse look upon the noble Longleaf Pine (Pinus Palustris) with grand esteem. To her, is the Loblolly a seemingly unworthy also-ran that has filled a niche that the Longleaf once dominated? Without a doubt, she considers it an important and lovely tree, but it is just in so many ways ordinary and second-fiddle to the monarch that was once the Longleaf. This is not to say that Loblolly Pines are bad trees, just that they are an unfortunate sign of the times wherein entire ecosystems have been disrupted and trees such as this one find a place in an ever-changing world made by humans that lets such highly adaptable species thrive. The Loblolly is one such tree.
That's the direction I became inspired by when writing this post. You see, I have so very few specimen pictures of the Loblolly because of how "common" they really are. Most of my shots incorporate the sentiments of how they get viewed by Southerners, as background scenery behind modern development.
I was too young to imagine that things had not always been this way. This is not to say that I had no imagination or that I knew not what a wilderness was (I grew up in one), but that I was simply ignorant of the fact that the Loblolly would have been truly an "also ran" back in the days when the Longleaf was king of the forest and savanna. The settlers who followed the First Born would have seen that very different world of an incredible arboreal diversity, with towering pines stretching forth above grasses and flowers stretching as far as the eye could see, kept open by the same agent of nature that made lower Michigan, Ohio, and Southern Ontario into a natural park of oak openings, fire. I imagine, as Janisse Ray does of a South long past, settlers living among these giants, every bit as transfixed upon them as... a child doing the same thing when confronted by the inheritor pine, the Loblolly. Maybe it is not, after all, such a common tree as it is a survivor and a triumph of nature trying to cope with human development. I consider the Loblolly to be an arboreal emblem of the modern natural South, in which nature still manages to rebound like, well, a weed! Even in farm country down there you can't help but run across a tree every few hundred feet, and often enough it will be a Loblolly. In truth, I have never seen the ancestral forest with my own eyes, and I can only imagine the grandeur of the Longleaf Savanna. The Loblolly, though, has managed to welcome me home every time I have come back to this land of the South, which holds such an irresistible lure to a botanist who is still a child at heart.
A part of me wonders what life was like where this tree held its own once against the broad rule of the Longleaf. Perhaps places like Jamestown, places where the continent started to forever change into the modern land it has become, are places where one can still find a forest of curiosities otherwise stepped quickly past by human advancement. Here maybe can be seen not some oak or pine parkland that provided an irresistible lure to colonial settlement, but a needle carpeted half-forest, half-opening maze of strange trees that grew beyond the landings of mushy cypress forest infested with mosquitoes. Would the first Virginians have tried to press on toward higher ground capable of more agricultural wonders and either ignored or found inconvenient the odd forest that was too open to give good shade, yet to thick to plop a house on? What would they have made of this place come winter when even the leafy shrubs beneath the pines would refuse to surrender their greenery, like the Red Bay (Persea Borbonia) or the Loblolly Bay (Gordonia Lasianthus)?
|Both of these delightful messes were captured at Historic Jamestowne, in the drier center of the swampy hook of land that John Smith and company tried to give Virginia a decent go at.|
But what about that Longleaf?