"I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree..." from a poem by Joyce Kilmer
Obviously Joyce Kilmer did not know my dad. This is the story about the year the government offered free pine seedlings to help stop erosion of the mountains in southeast Kentucky. My dad took them up on the offer.
We owned about 40 or 50 acres, all of it mountainous, in the foothills of the Appalachians. Our acreage had never been mined for coal, except for one small area that my grandfather had leased to a tiny coal operation many years before. Although there was no evidence that the mined area was eroding, there was always the chance that the mining tunnel would cave in, which might create the possibility of a small landslide, since it was in a very steep slope on the mountain. That still would not have affected us, but my dad was ever cautious, and he disliked mining anyway, because his father had lost his life to those mines when Dad was only in his teens. He did not want a reminder of that tragic event.
When the offer came, Dad was quick to jump on it. I am not sure which branch of the government offered the pine seedlings, and there is no one around to tell me now, but somehow my dad got 100 free white pine seedlings. They came with instructions: plant them as far apart as needed for a 230 foot tall tree. Now you have to understand my dad. If one apple tasted good, two would taste better. If one aspirin made a headache disappear, two aspirin would keep it away for the rest of the day. He planted those trees about 15 to 18 feet apart in straight even rows that were only about 10 feet apart. His reasoning was that they would not all grow, so he was making sure there would be enough trees to save his mountain.
White pine, Pinus strobus, filled the forests in northeastern America. The pioneers claimed a squirrel could travel all its life without coming down from the tree. It has a very strong light wood that was unrivaled as a building material in the days of the settlers, even today its wood has many uses. In my studies of early American history, I found that the early colonists would often ship huge quantities of the wood back to Europe. The British crown declared that the largest trees had to be reserved for mast wood for its navy, but the colonists poached the pine at night for their own use. They decided they needed it more for their own building than the British navy needed it for masts. When the American Revolution erupted the tree was the emblem on the first flag of the Revolutionary forces.
The Indians looked to the white pine for medicine. They made a drink from the boiled extract of the inner bark and used it as an astringent, but mainly they soaked the bark and applied it to wounds as a soothing plaster. They also used the inner bark for making a cough medicine. It contains mucilage which soothes the mucous membranes. My great Aunt Bett used it for that purpose because she thought it loosened phlegm. She also would boil the gum that could be taken from the tree and that was used as a pain reliever. And if I remember correctly, it also made a syrup that was given for colds as well. She always told me that the smell of the white pine told her that it would be good for colds, because the smell alone could clear one's sinuses. Since the white pine is no longer used for these medicinal purposes, there is no modern research on the validity of any of these old claims.
The white pine is an evergreen that can grow well past 200 feet. It likes well drained soils in cool climates. The bark is gray or dark brown with a grayish tint on its rough surface. The leaves are bluish green needles, thin, and about 4 or 5 inches long. They grow in bundles of five. Yellowish green male and light pinkish green female flowers are produced in cones that bloom from May to June. The female cone is about 6 to 8 inches long, and the male is much smaller.
Dad planted those free seedlings wherever he thought they needed to be: up near the old coal mine, down beside his work place, in the lot beside the house, and he planted a couple in Aunt Bett's back yard so she would not have far to go to get the "fixins" for her medicines. As you can imagine, it was the cluster of trees that were the closest to the house that gave us a problem. They grew rather quickly, and Dad waited almost too long to start thinning them out. My mother began to complain when they started to shade her rose bushes, so Dad cut a few along the perimeter. Aunt Bett said that hers were shading her garden, so Dad transplanted them to the other side and closer to her house. Transplanting them never bothered them one bit, they just continued to grow. I never heard anything more about those up near the old mine.
By the time I left for college, those trees were growing steadily and I would swear I could see them growing inch by inch every day. I was told to pick up the pine cones, they were long and skinny and sticky with sap. I got tired of using them in Christmas decorations and told Dad that the dry ones would be nice in the fireplace. Even then we could never seem to get rid of the seemingly thousands of pine cones. Aunt Bett didn't want the pine cones all over her yard either, so I picked them up for her. I was so very tired of pine cones. Every time I tried to wash the sap off my hands, they were raw for days afterward. Aunt Bett told me that her resin salve might be good to cure the rawness, but I was afraid it was sticky and I might never get it off my hands.
The trees continued to grow, and neither rain, sleet, hail or the ravages of time stopped their growth. My dad passed away suddenly one January day, and that following summer I went back to the mountains to be with my mother. She wanted me to create some flower beds in her back and side yards while I was there. Let me tell you, those pine trees very nearly covered her entire side yard. I knew I could not cut them down, so I finally decided to nag some of my male relatives so they could remove those that were much too close to the house. They removed 10 huge pine trees over maybe as many days, and finally the sunlight could reach the house again. After they left, I chopped off the lower limbs from the the remaining trees, just enough so that I could walk beneath them. It was so quiet beneath the pine trees, a whisper would echo.
Well, the mountain never eroded, and the trees still stand tall and proud, forever holding up the mountains that surround the house built by my grandfather for his family. Even now I can smell a white pine tree from a mile away.
Sources for this article came from my lesson plans for the Humanities class, and from my own memories. The photos are from Plant Files, thanks to the photographers: hczone6 for the close young cone thumbnail, Sasha24641 for the group of buds, Claypa for the group of pine cones, Jaoakley for the single cone, and TBGDN for the lovely winter scene.