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Lawrence S. Earley, former editor of Wildlife in North Carolina magazine, is a freelance writer and photographer living in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Co-editor, Wildlife in North Carolina (1987)
Editor, North Carolina WILD Places: A Closer Look, N. C. Wildlife Resources Commission (1993)
Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest (2004)
What Bartram Saw
A magnificent grove of stately pines, succeeding to the expansive wild plains we had a long time traversed, had a pleasant effect, rousing the faculties of the mind, awakening the imagination by its sublimity, and arresting every active, inquisitive idea, by the variety of the scenery.
-William Bartram, Travels (1791)
A longleaf pine forest on a bright day is a light and sound show. There's the verdant ground cover, mostly grasses that sway to each hint of breeze. The forest is open with widely scattered trees, and the early morning sun casts angled shadows from the pine trunks; by midday each tree will be standing in its own small pool of shadow. Here and there, dense groups of young pine saplings gather and the tufts of infant pines are nearly indistinguishable from the wiregrass. Above, the sky burns azure. The sound emanates from the treetops, a low and constant tone like the surf crash of a distant sea. Even on a perfectly still day you may hear this roar in the distance, as if somewhere an individual tree was gathering and amplifying some ambient sound. The great eighteenth-century explorer William Bartram described it as "the solemn symphony of the steady Western breezes, playing incessantly, rising and falling through the thick and wavy foliage."
On a sunny morning in April, I've come to the 200-acre Wade Tract Preserve near Thomasville, Georgia, to walk through an old-growth longleaf pine forest. Old-growth longleaf pine is scattered in small pieces throughout the Southeast, unlike the Pacific Northwest where relatively large tracts of old-growth Douglas fir still exist. The Wade Tract is one of these remnant longleaf forests. It's owned by the Arcadia Plantation and managed, through a conservation easement, by Tall Timbers Research Station just down the road. This rolling country is known as the Red Hills region, where erosion over the eons has carved an originally flat plain into pleasant hills and valleys. Some of the older longleaf pines have a distinct lean to them, and their tops have flattened with the loss of branches. Longleaf can grow to a ripe old age, about 400 to 500 years. The heights of the trees vary from 50 or 60 feet high in the deepest sands of the Carolina Sandhills to 110 feet or taller in richer soils. Their girth is modest-anything larger than 3 feet in diameter at breast height is really large; many old-growth trees had diameters of less than 2 feet measured at breast height. Longleaf is a beautiful tree, with lower branches that are undulant and graceful and that carry large cones. Its long needles distinguish it among all other pines and give it its name.
On this spring day, the red-headed woodpeckers are in frenzied motion, darting after each other among the pines and drumming incessantly on dead trees. They are mating and establishing territories, displaying the broad, black and white patterns of their wings, their large black bodies and crimson heads.
Grass is the predominant type of plant in this forest. There are possibly dozens of species growing here, although the most common is wiregrass ( Aristida stricta ). It grows green in spring and summer and turns a vivid gold in fall and winter, in all seasons rippling and bending in the wind. A wildfire ran through the forest three weeks ago, blackening some of the tree trunks and turning their needles a copper color. Yet the wiregrass has already greened out and grown two or three feet high, and the landscape looks scrubbed and fresh.
Across the rolling, parklike landscape of randomly spaced trees the open vista quickly thickens with distant trees. If I ambled off this path and through the wiregrass, past a drain that has thickened with a few shrubby oaks and up the sun-dappled hillside beyond, I'd see another vista just like the last. And then another.
I'm thinking: Perhaps this is what Bartram saw .
Not John Bartram, the famous Pennsylvania botanist to the King of England, friend of Benjamin Franklin, explorer and naturalist, but his son, William. Both Bartrams explored the southeastern United States in the late eighteenth century and wrote about their encounters with the longleaf pine forests. You can find John Bartram's account of their trip in a good research library, although it might prove skimpy reading. "Fine warm morning. Birds singing, fish jumping, and turkies gobbling," he said about one particularly fine day. John's friends and supporters shook their heads over his sketchy travel accounts. One noted that "he did not care to write down his numerous and useful observations. . He is rather backward in writing down what he knows."
Not so William. The younger Bartram accompanied his father on his first journey to the Southeast concluding in 1766 and then, alone this time, covered almost the same itinerary beginning about seven years later. He had been commissioned by London physician and fellow Quaker, Dr. John Fothergill, to collect botanical specimens and make botanical drawings of his travels. From Pennsylvania, he sailed to Charleston and explored the region around Savannah, pushing up the Savannah River to Augusta before continuing south to Florida. He negotiated the St. Johns River by canoe, accompanied an expedition of Indian traders west across Florida, pressed into northern Georgia and the Carolina highlands in Cherokee country, and then made his final trip west to the Mississippi River. Intended to take two years, William's travels actually lasted five (1773-77). Throughout that time he was rarely out of sight of longleaf pine.
William Bartram's account of his trip, originally entitled Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws , published in 1791, provides one of the earliest and most detailed descriptions of the virgin longleaf pine forests, although his literary style takes a while to get used to it. He was a practitioner of the eighteenth-century literary school in which a noun without an adjective is like a man without his pants. Often he seems to overwhelm the scene he's describing with the artificial flowers of his prose: "At cool eve's approach, the sweet enchanting melody of the feathered songsters gradually cease, and they betake themselves to their leafy coverts for security and repose." His father might have said, had he been tempted to say anything at all about such matters, "The birds stopped singing."
Bartram was thirty-nine years old when he began his trip and fifty-two when the book was published, yet Travels has the feel of a young man's book, a young man who has lately slipped the leash of his father's influence and expectations. He writes emotionally about the places he sees, and none of the scenes he witnessed stirred more joy and exuberance in his writing than the pine-covered landscape of northern Florida. On one occasion, he describes his journey in the company of Indian traders from the St. Johns River to the great Indian town of Cuscowilla, near the Alachua Savanna, today known as Payne's Prairie, near Gainesville:
For the first four or five miles we travelled westward, over a perfectly level plain, which appeared before and on each side of us, as a charming green meadow, thinly planted with low spreading Pine trees (P. palustris). The upper stratum of the earth is a fine white crystalline sand, the very upper surface of which being mixed or incorporated with the ashes of burnt vegetables, renders it of sufficient strength or fertility to clothe itself perfectly with a very great variety of grasses, herbage, and remarkably low shrubs. . After passing over this extensive, level, hard, wet savanna, we crossed a fine brook or rivulet; the water cool and pleasant; its banks adorned with varieties of trees and shrubs. . After leaving the rivulet, we passed over a wet, hard, level glade or down, covered with a fine short grass, with abundance of low saw palmetto, and a few shrubby pine trees [and oaks] . : then the path descends to a wet bay-gale; the ground a hard, fine, white sand, covered with black slush, which continues above two miles, when it gently rises the higher sand hills, and directly after passes through a fine grove of young long-leaved pines. The soil seemed here loose, brown, coarse, sandy loam, though fertile. The ascent of the hill, ornamented with a variety and profusion of herbaceous plants and grasses, particularly amaryllis atamasco, clitoria, phlox, ipomea, convolvulus, verbena corymbosa, ruellia, viola, &c.
It's the "variety of the scenery" that excites Bartram's enthusiasm, what he elsewhere characterizes as "grand diversified scenes." Bartram is describing a varied topography that supports several distinct natural communities: a level plain ("hard, wet savanna") "thinly covered" with longleaf; a creek and its floodplain; a poor rolling country ("a glade or down") covered with grass, shrubs, low pines, and scrub oaks; a shrub bog; sandhills; a grove of young pines; and a "magnificent grove" of "stately pines." Diversity delights Bartram.
From Cuscowilla, he traveled to Talahasochte, an Indian town near present-day Tallahassee, again describing in great detail the variety in the landscape. "Now the pine forests opened to view," he writes as he leaves the wet margins of the savanna. "We left the magnificent savanna and its delightful groves, passing through a level, open, airy pine forest, the stately trees scatteringly planted by nature, arising straight and erect from the green carpet, embellished with various grasses and flowering plants; then gradually ascending the sand hills, we soon came into the trading path to Talahasochte, which is generally, excepting a few deviations, the old Spanish highway to St. Mark's." That night the band camped under a grove of live oaks, "on the banks of a beautiful lake," and the next day they traveled over a rocky ridge on either side of which was "the most dreary, solitary, desert waste I had ever beheld." Bare rocks emerged out of white sand, the grass was scattered, and there were only a few trees. Soon he and his fellows "joyfully" entered a region of level pine forests and savannas "which continued for many miles," with ponds of water visible sparkling through the dark columns of the pines. They ascended again to sand ridges through savannas and open pine forests, negotiating with difficulty through a region dotted with lime-sinks ("cavities or sinks in the surface of the earth"), and camped that night "under some stately Pines, near the verge of a spacious savanna."
The next day the traders descended and continued for miles along a level, flat country over "delightful green savannas" dotted with hammocks of hardwoods. They crossed a wet savanna, a "rapid rivulet," entered more rocky land, and then passed another "extensive savanna, and meadows many miles in circumference" where a herd of Indian horses romped. On one side was a "beautiful sparkling lake." He calls this the best land they had passed through since they left Alachua, featuring a gray, brown, or black loamy soil in the lower portions of the landscape and, on the ridges, "a loose, coarse, reddish sand."
Talahasochte was about ten miles away now. After leaving the "charming savanna and fields," he and his band of traders passed through several miles of "delightful plains and meadows":
We next entered a vast forest of the most stately Pine trees that can be imagined, planted by nature, at a moderate distance, on a level, grassy plain, enamelled with a variety of flowering shrubs, viz. Viola, Ruella infundibuliforma, Amaryllis atamasco, Mimosa sensitiva, Mimosa intsia and many others new to me. This sublime forest continued five or six miles, when we came to dark groves of Oaks, Magnolias, Red bays, Mulberries, &c. through which proceeding near a mile, we entered open fields, and arrived at the town of Talahasochte, on the banks of the Little St. Juan [Suwannee River].
Travels made Bartram famous, and his idealized descriptions of a lost southeastern Eden have stirred the imaginations of generations of readers. His book influenced the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth and the prose of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He might have been even more famous had he accepted Thomas Jefferson's invitation to botanize on the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803.
Bartram wasn't the only one who delighted in the beauty of the longleaf forests and savannas. The Englishman Basil Hall, a man of polite society, traveled with his wife from Norfolk, Virginia, to Mobile, Alabama, in the 1820s. The two journeyed in coaches and on foot, and, like so many other travel narratives of the day, Hall's mixed descriptions of the scenery with comments on southern political and social institutions, especially the institution of slavery. His book, Travels in North America, in the Years 1827 and 1828 , vividly describes the great pine forests he and his wife traveled through, as in this account of a journey from Savannah to Macon, Georgia:
Our road, on the 22d of March-if road it ought to be called-lay through the heart of the forest, our course being pointed out solely by blazes, or slices, cut as guiding marks on the sides of the trees. It was really like navigating by means of the stars over the trackless ocean. When we had groped our way in this strange fashion for about ten or twelve miles, we came to a place where the slight trace of a road, in the expressive language of the woods, is said to fork, or split into two. . Off we went again, over roots and stumps, across creeks and swamps, alternately driving up and down the sides of gentle undulations in the ground, which give the name of a rolling country to immense tracts of land in that quarter of the world. The whole surface of such districts is moulded, by what means I know not, into ridges of sandy soil, gently rounded off, nowhere steep or angular, and never continued in one straight line for any great distance. I have often observed the sea in a calm, after a gale of wind, with a surface somewhat similar, only that in the case of these rolling countries the ridges are not so regular in their direction, and are many times larger than any waves I ever saw. They present no corners or abrupt turns; and though crossed by small valleys, these too have their edges dressed off in like manner, as smoothly as could have been managed by the most formal landscape gardener.
For five hundred miles, at the least, we travelled, in different parts of the South, over a country of this description, almost every where consisting of sand, feebly held together by a short wiry grass, shaded by the endless forest.
His journey through this piney wilderness was "toilsome" and "rugged," he wrote, "but it was a long time before I got quite tired of the scenery of these pine barrens. There was something, I thought, very graceful in the millions upon millions of tall and slender columns, growing up in solitude, not crowded upon one another, but gradually appearing to come closer and closer, till they formed a compact mass, beyond which nothing was to be seen."
The botanical richness of the pine forests of central Mississippi excited Mississippi congressman John F. H. Claiborne on a trip he made in 1841. "Much of it is covered exclusively with the long leaf pine; not broken, but rolling like the waves in the middle of the great ocean," he observed. "The grass grows three feet high. And hill and valley are studded all over with flowers of every hue. The flora of this section of the State and thence down to the sea board is rich beyond description." For another Mississippian, E. W. Hilgard, the open forest was like a park. "The herbaceous vegetation and undergrowth of the Longleaf Pine Region is hardly less characteristic than the timber," he wrote in 1860. "The pine forest is almost destitute of shrubby undergrowth, and during the growing season appears like a park, whose long grass is often very beautifully interspersed with brilliantly tinted flowers."
On his thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico from Jeffersonville, Indiana, in 1867, naturalist John Muir passed through the pine barrens of Georgia. He described them as "low, level, sandy tracts: the pines wide apart; the sunny spaces between full of beautiful abounding grasses, liatris, long wandlike solidago, saw palmettos, etc., covering the ground in garden style. Here I sauntered in delightful freedom, meeting none of the cat-clawed vines, or shrubs, of the alluvial bottoms." Even the serious-minded forester G. Frederick Schwarz, probing the last of Louisiana's virgin forests in the first decade of the twentieth century, could interrupt his study with a paean "to the picturesque forms of these trees and the charm and beauty of the forest scenes throughout these southern pineries":
For this is not only a very useful tree, but one of high aesthetic values also. Its long, bushy tufts of needles, the interesting and expressive crown-forms lifted high up on the straight trunks; the openness of the forest, isolating the trees and emphasizing their individual characteristics; the beautiful color contrasts of dark-green foliage, brown trunk and tawny grass; the open glades and occasional wide savannas within the forest, furnishing foregrounds and framing the view; and the magnificent backgrounds of sky and cloud, as seen through the trees or looking across the forest from some low hill-these are only suggestions of the features of beauty and the landscape values to be found in virgin forests of the longleaf pine.
Not everyone loved the pine-dominated landscape of the Southeast. For every traveler impressed by the beauty and diversity of the region, there was another who thought it was monotonous and uninspiring.
One rainy day in Savannah, Georgia, I spent an hour or two in a local historian's antiquarian shop looking over his collection of photographs, stereopticon cards, and historical prints. One print caught my eye. It portrayed the town of Savannah a year after its founding by James Oglethorpe. Based on a sketch attributed to Peter Gordon, one of the original band of 107 settlers, the engraving- A View of Savana as It Stood on the 20th of March, 1734 -is a powerful scene, a bird's-eye view of a young and aggressive town projecting a tiny finger of Renaissance perspective into the pine-dominated landscape. In the foreground cattle graze on Hutchinsons Island. Sailing ships and skiffs ply their business in the lively harbor while workers hoist bales from the docks forty feet up the bluff. Just on the edge of the plateau, Oglethorpe's tent sits beneath four pine trees, and behind it settlers have erected houses on fenced lots and laid out plats for other dwellings. The outlines of the squares that still distinguish this lovely old town are clearly visible. Two men carry a log into the settlement, perhaps destined for the palisade.
It was the thin cowl of pine forest surrounding the town just outside the palisade that really captured my attention. Oglethorpe had described the site of his new town as being "sheltered from the Western and southern Winds (the worst in this Country) by vast Woods of Pine Trees, many of which are an hundred, and few under seventy feet high," and there they are in Gordon's engraving. It is surely one of the earliest visual representations of the pine forests of the Southeast, and clearly the artist wanted to depict a pine forest-the straight poles of the trunks and the lack of lower branches are clues. "The country all round us is a continued forrest," Peter Gordon wrote in his journal, and in the print the trees crowding into the horizon suggest that immensity, a vast and brooding presence kept at bay by the small settlement's walls.
This impression of an unending, featureless forest was a common theme in accounts written by other members of the Savannah colony. "Take care not to go into the Woods without a Guide," advised one correspondent. "If you ask, how a Country that is covered with Wood, and cut with Rivers and Morasses, is passable," he wrote, "I must acquaint you, that since the Colony was settled, the Ways were marked by Barking of the Trees, to shew where the Roads should go." Despite these aids, it was easy to get lost in the forests near Savannah. Two men who disappeared in the woods were brought to safety after three days by the periodic firing of cannon, a customary procedure. In Purysburg, a settlement on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, a man who disappeared into the forest was never seen again, and his widow waited a year and a day to remarry.
The miles of sandy soils, the flat topography, and the interminable pine forests, combined with the tedium and difficulty of travel, must have been stupefying for many foreign travelers who had already endured one featureless expanse, the sea, in reaching America. "The country [from Suffolk, Virginia, to Edenton, North Carolina] must be imagined as a continuous, measureless forest, an ocean of trees," wrote German traveler Johann David Schoepf in the 1780s. "A dreary Waste of white barren sand, and melancholy, nodding pines" was how Janet Schaw described her first impressions of land as she traveled up the Cape Fear River in North Carolina after leaving the West Indies. "The road was a deep, wearisome sandy track, stretching wearisomely into the wearisome pine forest," wrote English actress Fanny Kemble of her travels in Georgia in 1838-39. While passing through South Carolina's longleaf forests in 1858, Englishman Charles Mackay wrote:
Where, northward as you go,
The pines forever grow;
Where, southward if you bend
Are pine-trees without end;
Where, if you travel west,
Earth loves the pine-tree best;
Where, eastward if you gaze,
Through long, unvaried ways,
Are pine-trees evermore.
In 1863, on being asked to summarize her impressions of the country that she encountered on her way to Mobile, Alabama, Lily Langtree, another English actress traveling in America, replied: "I have come through a great deal of low land, flat stretches of red clay country and districts crowded with pine trees. The ride to-day has been peculiarly monotonous. . I have never seen anything like this Southern woodland before. It strikes me as immense, entirely too immense, and uncultivated."
If "monotonous" and "dreary" were the most common words in the vocabulary of many travelers in the longleaf pine region, "gloomy" was not far behind. "There was but little to distinguish the one route from the other," Alexander Mackay said, indifferently comparing his trip from Raleigh to Wilmington, North Carolina, to another from Charleston to Columbia, South Carolina. "The whole of this district . has, in most places, from the quantity of dark and sombre pitch-pine with which it abounds, [a] gloomy and monotonous aspect." "A dark wilderness of pines . [so] dense . it seemed as if we had entered a realm of sighing and moaning," wrote a traveler in North Carolina's Cape Fear country in 1853. "It is impossible to resist the feeling of loneliness that creeps over one on entering these silent forests," noted Porte Crayon (David Strother Hunter), "or to repress a sentiment of superstitious dread as you glance through the sombre many-columned aisles, stretching away on every side in interminable perspective."
Today, you have to look hard to find longleaf, but the European conquistadors and adventurers, religious divines and Indian traders, gentlemen and gentlewomen, hunters, naturalists, botanists, and geologists who left written records of their travels in the Southeast were looking at longleaf. It was all around them, a land of strikingly different configurations-flat, monotonous stretches of thin sandy pine forests uninterrupted for miles; rolling hills of dense pine forests abutted by lakes, swamps, and other wetlands; forests full of sun and light; shadowy forests. The forests were as featureless and monotonous as the sea or desert, as varied and colorful and delightful as a garden or park, or as sinister as a forest out of legend or European folk tale. If these comparisons of longleaf pine forests seem dissimilar it is because those who beheld them colored them with their own feelings, or because they could not quite get their minds around the immensity of the forest, describing its variety a part at a time like the six blind men feeling the elephant.
From LOOKING FOR LONGLEAF: THE FALL AND RISE OF AN AMERICAN FOREST by Lawrence S. Earley. Copyright(c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. http://www.uncpress.unc.edu