A Love Affair with Longleaf Pines… and a life lesson from them.
(Above) A “Landmark” Longleaf Pine. Longville Gravel Pit Road. When the Longleaf Pines of western Louisiana were cut early in the 20th Century, some trees were left as “landmark trees” or “testimony trees.”
This is my favorite about five miles southwest of Dry Creek.
“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time is today.”
We’re just finishing burning season in Southwestern Louisiana.
Five days of rain and the greening of the grass ended one of the driest winters we’ve had in years.
The following story is from my 2004 book, Wind in the Pines. It tells about another spring ten years ago.
Burned, yet Blessed, by the Fire…
Nothing breaks my heart like a field of dead burned pines. Yet, that is exactly what I’m looking at driving down Highway 113 toward the community of Reeves—forty acres of longleaf pines have been the victim of a forest fire.
The fire must have been hot. It completely burned the smaller trees and blackened the bark of the more mature trees over ten feet high. It’s a sad sight seeing acres of pines with blackened trunks and brown straw. This entire stand will need replanting.
There is an amazing story behind the fire in the pines. These trees might look dead, but they aren’t.
The history of the longleaf pine, Pinus Palustrus, must be understood in grasping this story. This native tree, also called the yellow pine, ruled the virgin forests of the South fromVirginia toEast Texas. Because of its hardiness and adaptability in growing in shallow, sandy soils, it covered much of the acreage of the southernUnited States
These beautiful pines existed in vast tracts called pine savannahs, upland areas where the pines were scattered throughout grassy areas. Because of the tall grasses, fire was always a reality during the dead of winter when frost had killed the surrounding vegetation.
The first humans burning the woods were the native Indians. They burned the savannahs to better see game animals and lessen the chance of their enemies hiding nearby. Later, white settlers burned these same grasslands for better grazing for their cattle and sheep, as well as killing pests such as redbugs and ticks.
A lightning struck pine tree on fire.
This fence row pine had been struck earlier in the year. As I burned the fencerow, the sap on the lightning scar caught afire. I ran to the house, got my camera, and captured this unique picture.
No matter the reason for these fires, the longleaf pines could survive the heat. In fact, fire is imperative for the early development and growth of this species.
The early stage of a longleaf pine is called the grassy stage. The tree has hardly any trunk above ground and the long green needles more nearly resemble a wild type of grass than a tree. The pine will stay in this stage indefinitely—until a fire sweeps through.
Notice the candle bulb on this young longleaf pine. It is leaving the grassy stage and will experience upward growth for the coming decades. This pine is in my front yard. The larger trees in the background are slash pines.
However, tremendous growth is taking place underground. The small visible tree is sending down a strong taproot, that anchors it deeply into the earth and stores energy and nutrients for the future.
During this grassy stage, the above ground portion of the pine will remain dormant in growth due to what is called Brown Spot Needle Blight. This fungus attacks the top growth area of the young pine, called the candle bulb.
The combination of the tall grass around the tree competing for sunshine and nutrients, and the Needle Blight keeps the young pine tree from growing upward. The surrounding grass keeps the area moist, which is the condition the Needle Blight needs to attack the small pine’s topmost candle bulb. The result is that the longleaf sapling will remain alive, but never grow upward.
This species will never reach its potential until a fire rushes through, killing the grass and other trees competing with it for water, sunlight, and nutrients. Additionally, the heat of the fire kills the Brown Spot Needle Blight. The bushy longleaf pine is now freed for growth to its intended height.
A few years ago, I was hiking in the “Red Dirt” area of theKisatchieNational Forest. This is an area still populated by tall, thick stands of longleaf pines. At the end of my hike, I hitched a ride with a forest ranger back toward my truck. We began talking about the beauty of the pines ofLouisiana. He made a memorable statement “My daughter just got back from visiting twelve different states. She told me, ‘Daddy, I saw lots of pretty sights and trees. But I didn’t see anything more beautiful than the longleaf pines ofLouisiana.’”
I agree with her. I love those pines and one of the reasons I love these pines is because of their resilience. Looking across the tract along the Reeves highway, I see pines of all sizes blackened and charred. The needles have been burned off the smaller trees, leaving a pitiful stump. In spite of their appearance, I know the small trees are still alive.
In the succeeding weeks, I inspect the field hoping for new growth. Finally, in March the tops of the trees begin showing new green growth. Soon new healthy candle bulbs, some nearly a foot long, begin reaching upwards. Over the coming weeks and months, these thin bulbs turn into tree trunks and sprout fresh pine straw. These longleaf pine seedlings, once dwarfed by the grass and bushes, will never again compete for water, sunlight, or food.
Knowing about this species, I also know that this same growth is taking place underground. If you’ve ever seen the exposed taproot of these trees, you know that it has a deep strong foundation for growth.
There is a spiritual application from the story about these pines. In our lives, we need the fire of trials and challenges for growth into the persons God wants for us. None of us desire these times of heat and pain, but God uses these times for the shaping of our heart for maximum growth.
We see a memorable example of this “burned yet blessed” experience in the wonderful Old Testament story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The book of Daniel tells of these three young men being thrown into the fiery furnace after not bowing to the idol of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar.
The fire was so hot that it killed the soldiers tossing them in this furnace. Our three heroes were thrown in tightly bound, as good as dead.
In a few minutes the King and his advisors were amazed at seeing them walking around in the fire. His words tell the story better than we ever could:
“Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” (Daniel 3:25 NKJV)
I In the fire, God did not desert them but showed up personally and stood by them. In this fire, “what bound them” was burned off. Just like the longleaf’s fungus blight, the hot fire burned off what held them back.
We all experience being in the fire at various times in our lives. None of us is exempt. Your fire will probably be much different from mine. Regardless, God wishes to use this fire for shaping and using you. Throughout history, the people God has used the most have been those who’ve worked through difficult circumstances and grown to their “maximum” height for use by Him.
Are you in the fire? If so, remember that God has not abandoned you. Just as God joined Shadrach and his two partners in the Babylonian fire, you are not alone. You can rest assured that your faithful Father is using this fiery trial in shaping you for maximum use.
If you are ever driving along La. 113 between Reeves and Dry Creek, look west at about mile marker 3. You’ll see a field of longleaf pines of all sizes. Some are in neat rows while others are wild pines that have come up on their own.
And remember that the hot fire has burned all these pines. In fact, they’ve been burned yearly for continued maximum growth. What looks like a terrible thing is truly a blessing.
Looking at them, I hope you recall the story of these pines—trees with deep roots, thick bark, and a lasting resilience.
Longleaf pines that have been burned, yet blessed, by the fire.