Pines & sky overhead in Weymouth Woods. Photo credit: Jennifer Brown

I never found the 471-year-old longleaf pine tree.

To be honest, I never exactly went looking for it. Instead, I walked and ran the paths through the Boyd Tract of Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, looking up until my neck ached at the eye-dazzling glory of green-tasseled pine-tops backed by the clearest blue sky, listening to the distinctive trills of woodpeckers just enough out of sight that I could imagine some of them were the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker that loves to make its home in longleaf pines. At a week-long writing residency in the nearby Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities, I took breaks from work to wander among the pines and think about trees and birds and life in its myriad and surprising forms. But the wandering was as far as I got: I took in the pollinated air and cathedral-grandeur of that tract of forest, knowing that the Old Pine was there somewhere, its roots an anchor deep in the soil of time immemorial.

It lives outside of Southern Pines, North Carolina, within the Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, and it is the oldest documented longleaf pine, dating to 1548 C.E. It may be beyond human capability to adequately imagine what it is to live so very long, to endure so much of time’s passage, of wind and storm and ice and heat, to withstand drought and deluge in turn and preside over drastic changes in the landscape without succumbing to them. The scale of such a life is dizzying from the comparatively mayfly-like view of the human being, our ability to pass knowledge to our descendents notwithstanding.

Of course, the Old Pine in Weymouth Woods is a baby compared to “Methuselah,” the 4800-year-old bristlecone pine in California that has been known as the oldest tree in the world (until recently: another tree in the grove has been determined to be over 5,000). Or there’s Pando, a clonal colony of quaking aspen in Utah that has been around perhaps since the last Ice Age. To ponder the life of a tree, even the oak or tulip poplar in the backyard, invites us to expand our definition of “lifetime.” Some live to be old, some ancient, yet they’re still sort of similar to us. Unlike the truly unimaginable timescapes of the universe beyond Earth and its solar system, the lifetime of a tree is at least measurable in units of time that also apply to us, and we can witness as a seed becomes a seedling, a sapling, and then outgrows us at a rate even more alarming than that of our own children.

A young longleaf pine in Weymouth Woods. Photo credit: Jennifer Brown

How much these old-growth forests have experienced. How much of human history they’ve overseen. These survivors of our agriculture and construction are themselves more impressive than any edifice we’ve engineered, giving home and nourishment to more living beings than a person could count, holding the earth in place with their great, thirsty roots. Once you begin to imagine the lives of trees, it’s not much of a stretch to regret the destruction of them.

Longleaf pines used to cover the southeastern U.S.; now, their range is a fraction — about 3% — of what it was (here’s the USDA’s information regarding the pines). With them, the species of animals (undoubtedly, of everything from microbes on up) that particularly flourished in their forests and up and down their tall, straight trunks have diminished, too, the red-cockaded woodpecker, but also the fox squirrel and the gopher tortoise and the Eastern indigo snake. Their habitats are now small pockets tucked among the acres of developed land across the Southeast.

The good news — since we do need good news — is that the efforts necessary to restore some of the longleaf pine’s habitat have been robust. Various departments of the federal government under the USDA, along with state agencies throughout the Southeast and nonprofit organizations like the National Forest Foundation, have partnered under the America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative to try to repair some of the damage done to these vast ecosystems before it is entirely irreversible.

Still, the thread of hope that I’ve grasped at regarding the restoration of the longleaf pines is tangled up with others — sorrow and pragmatism, mainly. In my mind, the voice that mourns for a wild and forested world that existed long before I came on the scene competes with the voice that says, this is how it is, kid. Humans have come this far, and all we can do is keep going. This voice — it would like to call itself the Voice of Reason, but I’m not certain it gets to claim that title unchallenged by other views — this Pragmatic Voice also says, what would you give up to restore the woodlands? What elements of modern life would you be willing to trade for the lives of the trees?

And that’s where it nails me to the wall, where this line of questioning maybe always skewers us, as individual humans who only get this one, very short lifetime. To imagine trees are like us is to bring them down to human scale, wherein life is a fleeting territory to be clung to, fought for, and cherished. To imagine trees, on the other hand, as citizens of the mind-numbing timescapes of the greater universe is to make them seem strange and distant, grander but less alive, in the way that we understand that state. It seems as though, no matter what way I try to think past this, I arrive at the mind divided: I don’t want to give up the ease and comfort of the way I live, but the astonishing presumption of humans in reshaping the landscape, killing living things that are hundreds or thousands of years old, is nearly unbearable. What compromise, if any, is there? The question is a real one. I can’t pretend to have an answer.

I drive past, on any given day, countless acres of land in and around Raleigh, NC, recently deforested in preparation for development, which seems perpetual. Mounds of red earth lie bare as the red rocks of Arizona, but here, it’s clay, and it ought to be shaded by pine and oak. These clearcuttings feel wrong, but who am I to draw a line? Who can? Who will?

The Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve holds a birthday party for the Old Pine in April to educate visitors about the longleaf pines’ habitat as well as to celebrate the life of one venerable member of the species. With things as they are, this may be the closest we can come to getting it right, bringing trees into scale with human lives, with our adorable celebration of annual birthdays, while also trying to see past ourselves to the many lives those trees have supported, nourished, and engendered. Donating to organizations that work on conservation can’t hurt, I suppose. Voting for representation in all levels of government that supports conservation of habitats seems important, too.

But it might be wise, for those of us here now, to get out into the trees while we can. To stand by the roots, notice what lives on the bark, craggy or delicate almost like our skin. To look up into the intricate branches, how they carve out terms with gravity and prefigure every arch and cantilevered platform humans have built. You’re probably not very far away from a tree that’s older and more deeply integral to the world around it than you are. Maybe you can find it, admire it, imagine what it means to you.

From W. S. Merwin’s poem, “Native Trees” —

I asked
were there trees in those places
where my father and my mother were born
and in that time did
my father and my mother see them
and when they said yes it meant
they did not remember
What were they I asked what were they
but both my father and my mother
said they never knew

(Read the whole poem here. W. S. Merwin cared for trees so much, he founded a conservancy on Maui. Read more here.)

Pine bark: who knew how beautiful it was? Photo credit: Jennifer Brown

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