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WHITE PINE GROVES
A tiny brown wing brushed my cheek this morning, flitting madly southeastward on the wings of the November gale. It was a belated one of many that have scattered from the pine taps this autumn, for it was the single wing of a white pine seed and the cone harvest has been good. Ever since August the squirrels have known this and the stripped spindles lie by the score under the big pasture pines where these have left them after eating the seeds. It seems much work for small pay for the squirrel. He must climb venturesomely to the very tip of the slippery limb, gnaw the cone from its hold, then run down the tree and gnaw it to pieces for the tiny seeds within. So light are these seeds, wing and all, that it takes twenty to thirty thousand of them to weigh a pound and it is probably fortunate that squirrels do not live by pine seed alone. However, the gnawing means as much to the squirrel as the eating, for the squirrel's teeth grow constantly and he must continually wear them off or he dies, stabbed by his own incisors which grow in the arc of a circle. Yet the squirrel is an adept at getting at the tiny, toothsome seed and he can strip a cone of its scales far faster than I can, even if I use my knife. He holds the cone stem end upward in his fore paws which are so like hands, severs the base of the scale with his ivory shears and has munched the two little seeds that cling under the very bottom of the scale, almost before you can see him do it.
Certain wise naturalists assure us that the squirrel does not use reason in this handling of the cone, merely acting automatically by blind instinct. Yet he gets his results in the shortest time and with the least effort. The highest reasoning could teach him no more and if instinct is such a splendid short cut to the solution of problems it is a pity that it is not added to our common school course. The squirrel, they say, does it because he and his ancestors have done it in the same way for untold generations, the automatic impulse being born in him and bound to appear at the right moment, just as his teeth grow without his own volition. Yet there must have been a time when the first squirrel sat up on a limb with his first pine cone in his paws. Did he reason out the way to get those seeds or did he know instinctively? And if so what is instinct in his case?
For all the squirrels got so many cones that in some places in the woods the ground is fairly carpeted with the brown scales which they severed, prompted by this clever whatever-it-is that is such an excellent substitute for wisdom, there are plenty still left on the trees where they dangle from the branch tips, their scales gaping and the seeds for the most part gone. Left to themselves they have been flying away ever since September, a few at a time on dry, windy days when their single wings would scull them farthest. One might impute instinct or whatever it is to the pine tree too, she works so methodically for the preservation of her species. A year ago last spring the mother pine put forth the beginnings of those pine cones that now dangle brown and pitchy, or drop to the ground, useless except as kindlings for my campfire. Then they were wee golden-green buds of pistillate flowers, set high on the uppermost branch tips that the pollen from the tree's own staminate blooms might miss them in its flight down the wind and thus avoid in breeding. If they miss fertilization altogether they fall off. It is commonly said that the pines produce a crop of cones once in five or seven years, which is true in part, just as the statement that every seventh wave at sea is larger than any of its preceding six is occasionally borne out by the facts. I do not recall years in which the pines have failed to put forth both staminate and pistillate blossoms. Sometimes frost gets these and they fail to reproduce. Sometimes a long rain will prevent the pollen from being disseminated by the wind until its time is passed and again there is a failure in cones. Only once in a while is the season perfectly favorable, and then we get that seventh wave in pine cones and the squirrels rejoice that they can file their teeth and fill their cheek pouches at the same time. The years when there are no cones at all sending forth their seeds in September are few indeed. This year the harvest in my neighborhood has been an excellent one.
The fertilized bloom soon ceases to be a little Christmas candle on the tree top, closes its tiny scales over its growing seeds and becomes a little green cone, still sitting upright on the upper branch tip where it grew. By autumn it is an inch and a half long, the short peduncle which attaches it to the branch has lengthened and thickened, but is not able to hold it wholly erect, so much has it gained in weight. At that season the young cone and its fellows have tipped over horizontal or even becomes slightly pendulous. Thus it remains through the winter, its scales pressed close to its core and to one another, defending the tender seeds from all cold and making a seemingly solid chunk of the whole. Toward spring I have known squirrels to attack these young cones, but rarely, and I am not sure whether it was because of the pressure of hunger or whether some young squirrel's instinct to sharpen his teeth on them made him a bit precocious. These adolescent cones begin growing again very early in the spring. Youth will have its way, and in this case it seems to seize on the first sap that gets as far as the topmost branch tips, compelling it to the nourishing of the young cones before it can go to the making of new leaves or even of the crop of staminate and pistillate blossoms for the ensuing summer. The cones add a quarter of an inch to their length before the blossoms of that year appear, and their weight sags them still more on the stem, making them distinctly pendulous. By the last of August these greedy feeders have not only ripened the seeds within the still close-pressed scales, but have multiplied their own length by four, being four to six inches long and hanging pretty nearly straight down by their weight.
Their work is done then. Fifty or more scales has each cone, a hundred or more seeds, if the fertilization has been perfect, are ripe and ready to go forth and produce other pine trees. In early September the sap begins to recede from these ripe cones, the scales lose their green plumpness and begin to dry and curl back toward the base of the cone. This gives the seed eating birds, the siskins, the pine grosbeaks and especially the crossbills their best opportunity and they eagerly pluck out such seeds as the narrow openings will give them a chance at. Between these and the squirrels the pine forests of the future are decimated before their seeds have been planted. Nature provides bountifully for the reproduction of all her favorites, yet far more bountifully in some instances than in others. A thousand young birches spring from seed, to one pine in our Massachusetts woods, and no wonder. Each birch tree ripens a thousand seeds to one that comes to maturity in the great cones of the pine. Yet there are compensations for the pine tree. Barring axes and accidents it may live out its third century and yearly give more and more comfort and inspiration to mankind as it increases in dignity and beauty. The birch may give comfort and inspiration too through its grace and beauty, but it is lucky if it lasts out a score of years.
It is often a surprise to me to see how far a seed will fly with but one wing. The air currents set it spinning the moment it leaves its parent tree making of it at once a tiny gyroscope with a single blade of a propeller. Its gyroscopic quality steadies it and the whirl of its propeller tends always to lift its weight. Hence with a downward current it falls with a less velocity than the wind which whirls it, in a level breeze it often holds its own, while in the upward slanting streams of air which flow so often along and away from the earth's surface it rises easily. The stronger the wind the more the whirl of that tiny propeller tends to keep it in air and with a good September gale thrashing seed out of its cones a pine tree may be planting its kind for miles to leeward. The, seed that brushed my cheek this morning made no such offing. Caught in a back eddy it whirled round a sunny glade for a moment, then in a sudden lull spun directly downward to the grass. There again its shape favored it. The first grass spear stopped its spinning and it dived plummet-like out of sight, the thin propeller becoming a tail that kept it head downward while it slipped most cannily to the very mould. There I found it, still in such a position that every movement, every pressure, would carry it dawn out of sight of all seed eating creatures where it might rest and ripen till spring when it would be ready to germinate.
Searching the pine grove and the scrubby country that outlies it, I found all stages of pine growth, from the gnarled patriarch four feet in diameter at the butt to the germinating seedling. The patriarch is nearly a hundred feet tall, and though I know many pines of his height, I have found none of quite his diameter, and I am very sure none of his age, hereabouts. His age I can but guess, yet I know that fifty years ago he was as large as he is now. Indeed, he had more wood in him, for his lower limbs that then were green and flourishing and six to eight inches in diameter have since decayed and fallen away. Recently a pine was felled in Pennsylvania which was 155 feet tall and 42 inches through at 4 feet 6 inches from the ground. This tree was 351 years old. I have reason to believe my patriarch is as old as that one. His height is not so great, but he has three trunks instead of one, springing from that gnarled butt at a number of feet above the ground: There are occasional trees like this one still standing in eastern Massachusetts. They have seen their children and grandchildren grow to marketable size and fall before the woodchopper's axe. They have seen one or two generations of hardwood grow between these cuttings, yet they still are allowed to remain. In cutting off wood it used to be the custom of our forefathers to leave here and there a particularly gnarled and difficult pine that the seed might furnish a growth for succeeding generations. Hence these occasional trees. I may be wrong, but I have an idea that my patriarch was growing right where he stands, a young and vigorous sapling, when quaint old Josselyn wrote about those two voyages to New England in the early years of the seventeenth century.
Josselyn gives us to understand that the wood of the white pine is that mentioned in the Scriptures as gopher wood out of which Noah built the ark. Certainly if the white pine of Josselyn's day was abundant in the neighborhood of Ararat in Noah's time he could have done no better. The wood is light, soft, close and straight grained. You may search the world for one more easily worked or more generally satisfactory. Indeed the last half-century has seen the good white pine of the world pretty nearly used up, certainly all the best of it, for woodworking purposes. Fifty years ago it was the cheapest New England wood, today it is the highest-priced, and the old-time clear pine, free from knots and sapwood is almost impossible to obtain at any price. For all the forestry we can bring into play it will take more than three centuries to grow for us such trees as were common in Maine and New Hampshire a century ago. In 1832 white pines were not rare in Maine six feet in diameter and 240 feet high. In 1736 near the Merrimac River above Dunstable in New Hampshire a pine was cut, straight and sound and having a diameter at the butt of 7 feet 8 inches. Half a thousand years were none too many in which to grow such a pine as that. Could a man have a few of these on his farm anywhere in New England today they would be worth more than any other crop the centuries could have raised for him.
The youngest pine seedlings hide so securely in the pasture grass and under the low bushes that rarely does one notice them during the first summer's growth. By the end of that time they are singularly, to my mind, like fairy palm trees, planted in the gardens where the little folk stroll on midsummer nights. Their single stem and the spreading whorl of leaves at the summit of it are in about the same proportion as those of a palmetto whose great leaves have been tossed and shredded by the trade winds. That so tiny a twig could become, in the passage of centuries even, a 200-foot tree seems difficult to believe. It looks no more likely than that the "ground-pine" which is taller than the seedling and fully as sturdy should some day be 200 feet tall. Yet the ground-pine may grow from its creeping rootstock for a thousand years in the shade of one grove and never be over a foot tall. Thus easily may we be deceived by small beginnings. No palm ever rivalled a full-grown pine in height and girth, yet a palm comes out of the ground as great in diameter of trunk and with as abundant a leafage as it will ever have.
Watching seedling pines grow year by year it is difficult to see how the great, clean trunked, old-time pines that towered over two hundred feet tall and were from four to six feet in diameter came about. The free growing pasture pine makes a round headed shrub, for the first ten years or so of its life, with abundant long limbs, and is clad in profuse foliage from top to bottom. Even as decades pass its limbs still remain numerous and though there is abundant wood in the half century old pasture pine it is of little use for lumber, for the limbs, young and old, have filled its trunk with knots. Where our present day trees have seeded in thickly and uniformly over considerable space it is different. Then as the trees grow old they grow taller, each struggling to outdo its neighbors and get more light and air. Lower limbs decay in time and in the progress of forty or fifty years we get a "second growth" pine which is fairly limbless for a height of forty or fifty feet. Give the trees another half century if you will. I know many groves that have had that and still their trunks, though fairly bare, show the knots where the limbs have been and produce anything but clear lumber. It may be that by giving these century-old groves another century or two we should have something like the old perfect boles that our great grandfathers got out of the Maine woods, but I am not sure about it. I see no promise of it in the conditions under which pines grow today. Even my patriarch, though he has, I am very sure, sufficient years to his credit would cut up into only a medium quality of box boards; there is no clear lumber in him.
To produce the wonder trees of the early half of the nineteenth century the tiny seeds must have rooted plentifully in rich soil, the trees must have grown so close together as to steadily and persistently crowd out the weaker and shorter, and in the passing of two, three or four centuries we had remaining the magnificent specimens, towering two hundred or more feet in the air, their trunks without limb or knot for more than half that distance. Such conditions may account for these enormous trees, yet I am inclined to think that they do not. I am inclined to the belief that in these giant pines we had a variety of Pinus strobus which was very closely allied to our smaller trees, but which was not the same, just as the Sequoia gigantea of the higher Sierras is a gigantic variety of redwood, closely allied to but not the same as the Sequoia sempervirens, which flourishes nearer the coast and in the lower levels. That would easily explain why our pines, which we call "second growth," show little tendency to become such majestic or so long lived trees as the giants of a century and more in age. It is doubtful if any of the old time mighty ones remain in any remotest corner of our forests. It is a pity, too, for it is probable that in destroying the last one we destroyed a variety of pine that was far nobler than any left.