It is difficult to imagine what the world looked like a few hundred years ago, before the forests became grazing and farm land, before interstates sliced through those fields sprouting with subdivisions, and before there was always a McDonald’s just around the corner. Longleaf, Far As The Eye Can See, by Bill Finch, Beth Maynor Young, Rhett Johnson, and John C Hall (published way back in 2012), helps us to glimpse the beauty that existed in the southeastern so-called United States. The book tells the story of the Longleaf pine forests that once covered an estimated ninety million acres, from Florida over to Texas, and as far north as Maryland. Now those forests have been reduced to less than 3 million acres, and only a fraction of that can be described as healthy and whole. Along with the decline of the Longleaf pine, we also see decreased populations and endangerment of certain wildflowers, insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals that depend on the Longleaf forests as their home. Why the decline? As the book describes, a prominent characteristic of Longleaf is it’s dependence on fire. This species of pine evolved in such a way that it depends on a good wildfire every 5-10 years or so. With the increase in human habitation, wildfires have been suppressed. Fire suppression, along with the turpentine industry and the clearing of forests for lumber, agriculture, and development, has taken its toll on the Longleaf forests.
The book not only describes the forest, but it also shows this habitat through gorgeous and alluring photographs that help me to imagine what much of the southeast looked like not so long ago. At first glance, Longleaf forests don’t stand out. The trees aren’t giant like Redwoods (though the old-growth Longleafs were much larger than today’s) and the canopy is monotonous because it is largely just dancing pine branches. But while the tree diversity is lacking, the Longleaf spreads a canopy that allows in copious amounts of sunlight to create a beautiful meadow on the ground; full of wildflowers, blueberries, butterflies, grasses, and even the fascinating insectivorous plants. There are over a thousand plants that thrive in the Longleaf forest that can be found no where else on the planet. Because of this diversity, there is not one Longleaf forest, but many. If you only looked up while walking through the Longleaf pines, you would notice very little difference after covering miles upon miles. But if you look down at the forest floor, you would notice distinct changes every few hundred feet. It is thought to be the most diverse forest in North America. Longleaf, Far As The Eye Can See creates a sense of attachment to this habitat that is quickly being pushed out of existence.
All that said, I didn’t resonate with the primary solution the book laid out. The authors give examples of wealthy folks buying thousands of acres to restore Longleaf forests and reinstate the market for Longleaf timber. While it is good that people, rich or poor, are growing Longleaf, I feel the solutions they lift up are out of reach for the majority of people and only solidifies the way of life that brought about the decimation of wilderness in the first place. If we really value the health of our habitats, our entire orientation towards nature needs to change, and preferably soon.
Another book, Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest, by Lawrence S Earley in 2004, provides a more thorough history of Longleaf. The book is divided into four parts; including Longleaf ecology, exploitation, forest management, and ecosystem restoration. Though it doesn’t contain the inviting photography of the previous book, it does include some remarkable old-growth photos from yesteryear (one of which I have copied and placed on my desk so that I can look at it daily).
I was struck by a quote shared in this book: in 1902, Florida governor William Jennings addressed a meeting of the Turpentine Operators’ Association,
“In looking over the State as I saw it first, I recall mile upon mile of lofty pine stretching away on all sides, standing like lofty brown columns, supporting arches of living green, through which the breezes, as they passed, made sweet music; but now as I traverse the same country, I see great areas of scrubby pines, jack oaks, and a little wire-grass. The cathedral arches have gone, nature’s organ is silent, and the colonnades, with their everchanging vistas are no more. The hand of desecration rests heavily on the bosom of the earth, blackened stumps alone pathetically tell of the monarchs that once made the land beautiful and valuable, and I am told that the ancient order of turpentine men wrought all this desolation…In the track of the naval stores and lumber men there are only blackened stumps to pitifully tell the story of the past, of a beautiful land left a ruin [by] ruthless, wasteful extravagance.” (pg140)
And just think, this was said way before there were McDonalds’ around every corner…Overall, I would recommend these books to anyone living in, or visiting, the southeastern US.