Flatness

I spent about a month living on the blissful slopes of the Vinschgau valley my Freshman year before COVID-19 made Northern Italy a global hotspot and ended my trip early. One of the classes I took while I lived and learned at Brunnenburg castle focused on the human relationship to the land and farming, specifically in difficult conditions. In the Italian alps, the lack of flat land meant that farmers had to craft their entire lives around mitigating steepness. Their tools, techniques and even crops were different from those found in the flatter farms to the south. 

My biggest takeaway from that class was that things as simple as slopes can have exponentially enormous effects on how a piece of land is engaged with by its human and nonhuman inhabitants. 

The Loblolly stand, unlike Brunnenburg’s vineyards, is exceedingly flat. This flatness, too, informs how the stand is engaged with. The rest of the Guilford woods roll gently, with a few sharper inclines and drops in the northwestern section. It is because of this flatness that the Loblolly stand even exists at all. Land is much easier to farm on when it is flat, so the Loblolly stand made an ideal location for farming some 70 years ago. 

When the Quaker settlers that first came to Guilford county in the 18th century, I wonder if they had any idea the path that the land they farmed on would take. Alternatively, I wonder if the people indigenous to the Greensboro area knew that the farms and fields would eventually cede to forests. 

In Italy, pines were the dominant species in most of the alpine forests I visited. These were towering, branchy, stately trees that refused to sway in the wind. Their canopies were dense and allowed less light to the ground than many of the forests I’ve been in. They had owned the slopes for centuries and showed little sign of yielding. 

The Italian pines have a much steeper environment than the Loblolly.

Because of the flatness of their habitat, it seems as though the Loblolly behave differently than their Italian cousins. The Loblolly do not need to fear erosion to the degree that the Italian pines do, nor do they have to hold on to a steep slope. They can sway in the wind without fear of falling off the mountain. Their trunks are more slender, and, unlike other pine species, the Loblolly are a bit top-heavy. 

Because of their comfortable environment, the Loblolly are afforded certain privileges that aren’t granted to trees in less hospitable conditions. Their needles behave differently, too. The Loblolly drop long, triumvirate clusters that get caught on the branches of saplings and hang like ornaments. The Larch and Spruce that grow in Italy have much shorter needles that fall straight to the ground. I’ve come to really love the ornamentation that the Loblolly leave; it’s an endearing interaction with the other trees in their environment. 

Needles hanging on a young Beech.

Flatness is a defining feature of the Loblolly, and I believe it is a major influence on their appearance and behavior. In outdoors circles, I feel like huge mountains and sweeping vistas often get a lot of love, but I have really come to appreciate the perfectness of a flat, forested piece of land. It imbues just as much sublime quality, even if it is not as obvious as an alpine peak.

Shinrin-Yoku

I talked in my last entry of how I came to the Loblolly stand feeling beaten down by my work and school. I felt like I was missing parts of myself that I wished I wasn’t. When I left, after I noticed the energetic sway of the Loblolly, I felt better. My Zoom-induced headache was gone, my lungs felt clearer, and legs had spring to them that wasn’t there before. I know that this is not a unique experience–plenty of people go to the woods because it makes them feel good–but I have been unsure why. 

In my research for this journal I learned that in 1982 the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries sought to encapsulate the energizing quality of a walk in the woods. They decided to call it shinrin-yoku, which roughly means “forest bathing.” Beyond just their aesthetic quality, spending time in forests has literal health benefits. 

According to research done by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, rees produce a set of chemicals called Phytoncides that they use as a natural pesticide. Phytoncides benefit humans by causing humans’ white blood cell counts to increase. Simply spending time amongst trees makes our bodies more resilient to disease. Other studies and research have shown connections between spending time in forests and decreased blood pressure and lowered levels of stress induced chemicals in the body like cortisol. 

There are also benefits of walking barefoot outside. Barefoot walks also increase white blood cell counts and can have a positive effect on joints. 

On a recent afternoon when my cortisol level was feeling especially high, I decided to decamp to the Loblolly stand to see if I could glean some of the benefits of forest bathing. I was feeling frustrated with school and bored with work and I needed to give my brain a break. I left for the stand at 3:00, after an especially tedious macroeconomics class. 

I didn’t even bring any shoes, which ended up being painful in some spots. The Loblolly were, of course, kinder to the soles of my feet. The cushion of their needles is perfect for walking barefoot outside. I abandoned the trail and found one of the more remote spots in the stand, where I could soak in the senses of the forest without much interruption. 

The way the fallen Loblolly needles move is like snow or sand; the surface of the forest floor is never quite the same, and always seems to be shifting one way or another. I found a needle-drift and laid down. 

Sometimes the needles would poke through my clothes, but it wasn’t an unwelcome interruption. I was glad to be reminded of what was beneath and around me. I stayed in the stand until the sun set over the woods’ mild hills and past my apartment. When I got home, I semi-consciously decided to skip my homework for the evening. I got out some Salmon I had been saving and made a nice dinner for my girlfriend and myself. I felt better.

My forest bathing companion. This little guy I found nestled in a younger Loblolly lifted my spirits, too.

Freedom of Movement

This year, I have run intermittently in the Guilford woods. I am a person who needs a team, or a workout partner at least, to keep a consistent exercise routine. I love to move, but ever since graduating high school I have found it increasingly difficult to find movement in my day to day. This pandemic-year especially has been a challenge for me. It is both a great gift and a significant burden that something as simple as movement is so connected to my emotional state. This year I have struggled to get into a consistent habit of exercise and the longer I have gone without movement the worse I have felt overall. As I have felt worse I have been less inclined to move. It is a cruel feedback loop that I wish terribly could be inverted. 

I miss the ease of movement I used to have. A year ago, or two, I was constantly seeking and finding movement in my day to day. I would run up flights of stairs and jump on ledges. I would climb trees and roll through the grass. I still do these things, but they are not intrinsic to how I move in the world anymore. If I want to climb a tree I have to set it as an intention, carve out time to pursue it, and follow through on my personal commitment. I think, and hope, that the loss of my intrinsic tendency towards movement is a product of the pandemic we are currently in. 

Wednesdays are my hardest day of the week. I usually wake up at 8:00, work until 10:00, go to class from 10:00 to 12:00, go to work meetings from 12:00 to 3:00, after which I start my tasks for my job and homework. I have a really difficult time being on Zoom for five hours straight. What I need after all those meetings is outside time, and movement, but I often feel too beat down to do anything beyond making myself a snack and scrolling or reading or watching TV. On a recent Wednesday I left my work Zoom feeling especially dejected, so I called my mom, who encouraged me to go for a walk outside. As I often am, I was led to the pine stand. I took a different path than usual–around the edge of the woods as opposed to the path closest the lake–and I ended up in the northernmost section of the stand. I was exhausted, and I wanted nothing more than a mental and physical break. I put my headphones in and found a spot softened by needles to lay down. 

I laid back and realized I had spent very little time looking at the canopy of the Loblolly stand. I had spent hours looking at the ground, the stumps, the trunks, the branches–but I had never looked up long enough to notice the constant movement of the entire stand. 

I have frequently noted how the Loblolly behavior and environment differ dramatically from the rest of the surrounding forest. To a degree, I expected that going into this project. Of course a pine stand would differ from its deciduous surroundings. I did not expect the trees to move differently.

When most trees move it is gentle and expected. Oak and Beech branches sway in the wind and I could care less. It makes sense that their branches move while their weighty trunks don’t. 

The Loblolly sway with a full bodiedness that seems nothing short of arrogant. They don’t have any branches until 30, 40, or even 60 feet up their trunks. Their brief crowns weigh heavy on their heads and pull them to and fro in a rhythm seemingly independent of the wind. It is a circular swaying, and each tree has an independent path that it traces emerald on blue against the sky. The Loblolly have significant structural differences than most other trees, pines included. Their tall, slender trunks bare of branches save for the last several meters afford them remarkable freedom of movement. 

It is an admirable movement, and one that feels deeply independent. Movement is a part of what gives the Loblolly their character. I hope I can find that same freedom of movement again soon. When I look up, I feel like I can. 

The Fields Will be Full of Pine Trees

Combine boiled bones, root vegetables, meat scraps, barley, garlic, Worcestershire and/or Marmite. Stew in whatever brown liquid you have on hand. Serve hot or cold with hardtack for mopping up and you’ve got Loblolly. Your sailors will be delighted. If you’re stuck in the infirmary—scurvy got the best of you? Plague?—you’re in luck. The ship’s “Loblolly boy” will be by soon with a hearty vessel of the dish. Recipes vary.

Some call for soaking corned beef in room temperature water for several hours, for example. The thread that ties all Loblolly recipes together, though, is their visual presentation. Bubbly, goopy and brown, Loblolly fails to appetize through description alone. It did, however, spark the imaginations of some colonial English seafarers. Upon reaching the bubbly, goopy and brown swamps of the Southeastern United States, the sailors used the word “Loblolly” as an apt descriptor of their miry environment. Eventually, the word came to be more closely associated with the trees that grow voraciously in southern swamps: the Loblolly pine.

Loblolly - epilogue — The Colony of Avalon
A hearty serving of Loblolly

Loblolly—Pinus taeda—has acquired plenty of other names, too. Rosemary pine, old field pine, and bull pine have all been used to describe the tree.

Within the etymology of its names, the Loblolly belies a core characteristic of its interaction and impact on the land. Nearly every name for the Loblolly refers not to the tree’s appearance, but rather to its character and location. Old field refers to the ease with which the tree gobbles up abandoned farmland; Rosemary refers to the aromatic quality the tree lends to the air around it; bull pine references the imposing bulk of a Loblolly stand; Loblolly because of the mire the tree thrives in.

The implicit etymological acknowledgement of the impact of place on tree and tree on place indicates a deep relationship between Loblolly and the land that is not similarly present in other trees. It shows that the Loblolly grow in distinctive landscapes, and that they lend distinctiveness to the land, too.

The Loblolly’s range stretches from Texas, around the Gulf, and up through the entirety of the South past Maryland. The most distinctive parts of the South belong to the Loblolly. Framed by their history of plantation slavery and sharecropping, Southern farms have driven racial and economic oppression in the Southern United States for centuries. Even now, agriculture charts an unsteady course for the South.

There’s a lot less farming happening now than there was 20, 50, 100, or 200 years ago. But the impacts of hundreds of years of farming in the South facilitated through racial, economic, and environmental oppression are deafeningly relevant. The South is defined by its farms. The truth of the Southern landscape is that its distinctiveness is inextricably tied to layers upon layers of oppression. What comes after slavery, sharecropping, environmental devastation, economic devastation, and the inescapable hardships each of those injustices has wrought?

The farm is gone. The field is empty. Soon, it will be full of pine trees.

This spot was once farmland but has since been entirely taken over by Loblolly (and a few young Beech).

Aging Unexpectedly

Journal entry for 2/21/2021

As far as foresters go, Peter Wohlleben is a rockstar, both in terms of renown and controversy. Some (especially those in the hard sciences, of course) find his teaching of forestry concepts through whimsical anthropomorphization childish. Like many of the 2 million-plus people who bought his breakout hit The Hidden Life of Trees, his prose was deeply affecting to me and has certainly altered my engagement with the sylvan world.

Trees, more than nearly any other organism, are marked by their longevity. According to Wohlleben, “One reason that many of us fail to understand trees is that they live on a different time scale than us.” (The Hidden Life of Trees vii) The oldest tree on the planet is well over 9,500 years old. Bristlecone pines that anchor the ridges of the Sierra Nevada regularly reach 5,000 years. Oaks and Beeches average ages in the 300’s and coppicing can extend their lives into the low thousands. (UCSB Science Line) In the Guilford woods, a well-known Tulip Poplar has gracefully aged into its late 200’s. 

“Creatures with such a luxury of time on their hands can afford to take things at a leisurely pace,” remarks Wohlleben. (The Hidden Life of Trees vii) But what happens when trees aren’t allowed to move and grow at their usual incremental crawl? How does the forest, the land, the air–the walk through the woods–change when the trees have had an unorthodox upbringing? 

The Loblolly that reside on the 10 acres that serve as my habitation spot have had a markedly different relationship with aging than their neighbors in the mesic mixed hardwood and dry Oak-Hickory communities that compose the rest of the Guilford woods. (Guilford College Woods Assessment 27) Most of the Guilford woods were farm fields until the 1940’s, save for a few small stands and select trees that avoided felling through the late 1800’s and early to mid 1900’s. Just as many of the trees that now make up the Guilford woods were beginning to take root in the mid-1900’s a large tract in the northeast began to be used as a pine plantation. The Loblolly stand that exists today is the remnants of that plantation. 

While the trees outside of that stand have been allowed to grow unencumbered since Guilford’s fields yielded to forest, the pine stand was grown with the sole intent of being harvested. The rest of the woods is, more or less, a natural forest that has developed through the standard stages of forest succession. The pine stand was planted and saw no competition from other species. It has progressed as humans intended, not as the Loblolly, or any of the other trees would’ve had it. 

Recently, this has led me to wonder about the effect this history has on the sense of place of the pine stand. Are forests that never would’ve existed without human interference lesser than those that progressed naturally? I can’t help but think of the pine stand as akin to a hog escaped from a slaughterhouse. What are you to do after you’ve avoided the saw? Are the Loblolly’s seeking purpose they never had? 

At first, I wondered if the pines might’ve missed the companionship of other tree species. As I’ve looked into Loblolly behavior, though, I’ve learned that, especially in open fields, fast-growing softwoods tend to group together. The Guilford Loblolly are a particularly interesting bunch because, unlike most forests, nearly all of them are the same age. Having been planted in the 1940’s, the trees are reaching 80-some years of age. If they were still plantation trees, now would be an ideal time to harvest. They aren’t and they won’t be, though, and, if economic or environmental factors don’t drop them, they’ll likely stand at least another 40 years. Their lives and lifespans are radically different from the course set for them in the early 1940’s. 

I have written in my first entry of how the pine forest is distinct from the other parts of the woods. It’s quietness is enchanting to me. For the first month or so of the semester, I visited every time I walked in the woods, usually two or three times a week. After I first learned that the pine stand is not naturally occurring, I didn’t return for several days. My feeling in response to that knowledge bordered on disappointment. If the pine stand wasn’t natural in its origins, I wasn’t sure I could expect it to hold the power I had previously felt there. 

That was a misguided notion, I’m sure. I have a bad habit of pretentious idealism when it comes to land relationships. My more reasoned mind loves that the Loblolly were never intended to live long enough that I could see them. The intention with which they were planted is not the intention they hold today. Now that the Loblolly are growing and swaying into their 80’s, I wonder if there is some slow-moving realization crawling up trunks and through the overstory that the burden of production has been lifted, the intention has changed, and this stand will live another 40 years yet.

This is one of the few stumps I could find in the Loblolly stand that looks like it was felled intentionally. Considering the size of the stump, I wonder if this was some other tree felled before (or in preperation for) the planting of the Loblolly stand. I was struck by the cross that has appeared out of the cracks in the wood. For such a simple and widespread symbol, I feel like crosses don’t often show up in nature.

Winter Calling

Journal entry from 2/15/2021

The light reflected through the frozen Loblolly needles casts the understory in greens and golds.

I have always felt best in school and life when I’ve had plenty of structure. I thrive when I can know something clearly through what I see, feel, hear and touch. When it comes to environment, especially, I appreciate knowing what’s coming. I think that’s why I like winter so much more than any other season. It is the most structured of the seasons in that it is visually and tactilely distinct in a way other seasons aren’t. Spring and summer share much of the same feelings–the brush of fresh grass, the smell of new vegetation–and in North Carolina, fall blends into summer with increasing ease. Winter has experienced the same seasonal blending phenomena as the planet has warmed and weather systems have destabilized. But, when I feel frost crunch under foot when I step outside, or when I can feel the cold creep of Raynaud’s disease reaching down my fingers, even with the thickest mittens, I know it is winter. That knowing feeling is driven to my core whenever I wake up and see fresh snowfall. I will always love new snow because it so radically alters the landscape yet offers a deep environmental–and seasonal–certainty. If there is snow then winter is not entirely gone. I know that it is winter because I can see that it is winter and I find great comfort in that proper seasonal presentation. 

I didn’t get nearly enough snow for my liking growing up in DC, and I’ve gotten even less since moving south to Greensboro. In the two and a half semesters I’ve spent at Guilford I haven’t seen any measurable snowfall. By mid February of this year, I had resigned myself to the fact that I was likely to face a winter without snow (is it even winter at all?). When the breakdown of the gulf stream-induced ice storm hit North Carolina, I figured I could accept a smattering of ice and snow as a consolation prize. 

I woke that morning to glistening trees and no power, which I didn’t realize until I was met with a cold shower and no heat after a wet, chilly romp in the woods. After seeing the trees out my window festooned in ice I got outside as quickly as I could. Frozen things don’t last long in the south, and I didn’t want to miss seeing the woods frosty. I did not expect to be as affected by the beauty of the woods covered in ice as I was. I was especially struck after I got to my habitation journal spot in the Loblolly pine stand. 

About three years ago, I planned a short weekend backpacking trip with my friend Ellie on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail we had hiked numerous times before. It was a weekend in early February, and we both wanted a familiar, easy to plan trek. We figured the midwinter snow in the northern Appalachians would provide something new. We planned an 18 mile hike for our first day and 10 the second. At our normal pace, we would’ve had no trouble, but we didn’t account for the slowing effect of hiking through snow. We also didn’t realize just how cold it gets on Appalachian ridges in February. We stopped for a quick lunch in a hollow on our first day after hiking for a few hours. I pawed some trail mix and mint Clif bars out of my pack and we gnawed on our frozen snacks for a few minutes in silence. Then, nearly in unison, we looked at each other shivering and agreed that if we didn’t start moving we’d freeze. 

We didn’t stop for the next 12 miles and hiked with as much vigor as possible to keep and retain warmth. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more thoroughly chilled. I remember that as an incredibly unique and beautiful hike though, because every inch of vegetation was covered in a quarter to a half inch of ice. As the sun sank into the ridges to the west the ice reflected golds and silvers, and unexpected greens and blues, too. 

I never saw ice so completely envelop a place like that again until this winter’s ice storm in Greensboro. The Loblolly aren’t quite the same as the scrub pines that hug northern Virginia ridgetops, but when their needles are covered in ice they throw light in exactly the same way. The unexpectedness of that connection was both flooring and reassuring. The seasonal structure that I crave is not present in Greensboro, but when the visual and tactile markers of winter do visit, they are all the more powerful.

Places of Conviction

Journal entry from 2/3/2021

For context–I admittedly did not know how to post on the wordpress site until this weekend and have been recording all my entries in a google doc. This was my first entry from early February.

The Loblolly stand I have been observing

According to the stories you invariably end up hearing in small town bowling alleys in the midwest, turn-of-the-century loggers in the northern pine stands of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan would refuse to sleep in a logging camp if any of its buildings had even a single stick of wood that wasn’t White Pine. I can empathize with that feeling even though my reasons are far less soaked in sweat and sap than those loggers. I have found that the most beautiful forests I have walked in have been White Pine forests. There is one stand in particular, near to where I last engaged in a habitation journal-style activity (I called it a phenology journal then) where the White Pines were never logged and exist as they were before nearly all the midwest was clear cut. My favorite spot lies two miles across the Michigan-Wisconsin border in the Sylvania Wilderness Area. There, the White Pines give way to Hemlocks on the banks of Loon Lake, whose waters are near black from the tannins leached by Hemlock needles. If you were to scoop up the water in a clear bottle, it would look like a strong cup of English breakfast tea. 

I think that each pine forest has a defining uniqueness to it in a way other forests don’t. I love the Beeches, Oaks, Maples, and Elms that populate the Shenandoah greenscapes I am most familiar with. They are lovely in their standardness. I know those forests, and I know that I can find similar forests with similar feelings about them in Western Maryland, or Pennsylvania, or North Carolina. 

But the pine stands are not so easily typecast. In Wisconsin and Michigan the character of those stands was a wonderfully mischievous wildness that felt much larger and more acute in its natural power than most other places. The first time I saw the deeply dark water of Loon Lake I thought of Sauramons tower in the Lord of the Rings: obviously dangerous, obviously powerful, but so, so beautiful. 

The pine stand in the Guilford woods possesses a similarly powerful character too, I think. I have felt that it boasts a quietness I’ve been unable to find anywhere else on campus, or in Greensboro at all, for that matter. For me, that quietness comes most directly from the ground. If you walk into the pine stand in the woods from a more deciduous area, you’ll notice a change underfoot. The ground–usually ruddy or muddy or rooty or rocky–changes to an enclosed softness. The first steps yield a sharp crunching feel, and you’ll almost unconsciously begin to walk more tenderly. A few paces in and you begin to get a sense for the point at which the needles break and give way to a softer depression. The ground is truly different in its composition. The rest of the woods offer bare soil, or soil under a thin layer of leaves and twigs. Under the Loblolly, though, there’s a good inch of gently browned needles and another two of humus before reaching dirt. 

The relative remoteness of the Loblolly stand adds to the quietness, too. Without a guide, the stand would be hard to find without prior knowledge of the woods. The main loop that the lake and North apartment entrances to the woods lead to does not directly connect to the pines. The lack of signage doesn’t help either, nor does the fact that the Loblolly make up just 10 of the woods 240 acres. While I consistently see joggers or dog walkers in the better-traveled sections of the woods, I rarely see more than one other person in the Loblolly. Perhaps this is because there are none of the usual landmarks that draw students to certain sections of the woods. There are no fire pits, no forts and no streams or ponds. Even the deer tend to just pass through the Loblolly on their way to someplace else. There is minimal ground cover due to the acidic humus and few young trees, leaving little for them to snack on. 

I love this quietness, and I love that it is confined to just a small corner of a small forest. The Loblolly, all of which were planted with the intent of harvest, would’ve never formed such a concentrated community in such a small area on their own. This stand is unnatural and it is individual and its uniqueness has lent it a distinct character. 

In some regards, the White Pine stand in the Upper Peninsula that I love and the Loblolly pine stand in the Guilford woods that I love could not be more different. One is old-old growth, never logged, never farmed. The other is as new as a mature forest can be. One is midwestern in location and climate, the other distinctly southern. Nonetheless, the two pine stands are tied by a powerful sense of character unique to pine forests. 

Recently, I was asked to identify what I look for in a friend for a class icebreaker. I thought about the question, and who I have chosen to surround myself with, and who I have sought to be surrounded by. I have long sought to surround myself with people of conviction, and I want to surround myself with places of conviction, too. At Guilford, the Loblolly stand is a place of conviction.

The Loblolly Stand, pictured above, carves through the rest of the more deciduous forest.