From Deep Roots, the new short story collection by Curt Iles
Burned yet Blessed
“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time is today.”
Nothing breaks my heart like a field of burned pines. Yet that is exactly what I’m looking at driving toward the community of Reeves, Louisiana—forty acres of longleaf pines have been the victim of a forest fire.
This must have been an extremely hot fire. It completely burned the smaller trees and blackened the bark of the more mature trees. It’s sad seeing acres of pines with burnt trunks and brown straw. It appears the entire stand will need to be replanted.
These trees might look dead but they aren’t. There is an amazing story behind the burning and growth of Pinus palustrus, the Southern Longleaf Pine. This native tree, also called the yellow pine, ruled the virgin forests from Virginia to East Texas. Because of its hardiness and adaptability in growing in shallow, sandy soils, it covered much of the acreage of the southern United States.
These beautiful pines existed in vast tracts called pine savannahs, upland areas where the pines were scattered throughout grassy areas. Fire was always a reality in dry weather and after the killing frosts of winter.
The native Indians first burned the woods so they could 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.
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—unless a fire sweeps through.
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 its future.
During this grassy stage, the visible tree will remain dormant due to what is called Brown Spot Needle Blight. This fungus attacks the topmost growth area of the young pine, called the candle bulb.
This combination of the tall grass competing with the seedlings for sunshine and nutrients, plus the Needle Blight, keeps the young 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 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 competing trees. 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.
I love the resilience of these trees. Looking across the tract along the Reeves Highway, blackened and charred pines stretch endlessly. In spite of their appearance, I know these burned trees are still alive.
In the succeeding weeks, I watch the field for new growth. In March, the trees begin their miracle with new green sprouting. 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 fres pine straw. These longleaf 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. During the grassy stage, the underground taproot is growing strong and deep, giving it a stable foundation for its upward journey.
There’s a spiritual application from the story of the longleafs. In our lives, the fire of trials grow us into the person God wants us to be. None of us desire these times of heat and pain, but God uses them for the shaping of our taproot—the heart—for maximum growth.
We see a memorable example of this “burned yet blessed” experience in the Old Testament story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The book of Daniel tells of these three young men being thrown into the fiery furnace for refusing to bow to the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.
Our three heroes were thrown in tightly bound, as good as dead. The fire was so hot that it killed the soldiers tossing them in this furnace. In a few minutes the King was amazed to see them walking around in the fire. Daniel 3:25 tells of his reaction.
“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.”
God did not desert them but personally showed up and stood by them. In this fire, what bound them, the ropes, were burned off. Just like the longleaf’s fungus blight, the hot fire destroyed what was holding 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 most used have been those who’ve worked through difficult circumstances and grown to their maximum height for use by Him.
When you are in the fire, remember that God has not abandoned you. Just as God joined Shadrach and his two partners in the Babylonian fire, you are not alone. Your faithful Father is using this fiery trial to shape you for optimum use by Him.
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 have come up on their own.
The hot fire has burned in these pines. They’re burned yearly to help them grow. What looks like a terrible thing is truly a blessing.
These trees tell a memorable story.
The story of deep roots, thick bark, and a lasting resilience.
Longleaf pines that have been burned—yet blessed—by the fire.
“A fellow is in one of three places in his life: coming from a fire, going toward a fire, or in the midst of a fire. There’s one common denominator: God stands by us in each one.”