The Mighty White Pine

With White Pines on my mind today, I think back to 1936. My dad owned a 1931 Plymouth sedan and planned a two-day trip to visit my mother’s aunt Inga Skala and her son Russell. They lived in the “wilds” of the U.P. of Michigan, where Russell made a living cutting pulpwood into four-foot sections to sell to the paper mill.  

It may have been the huge White Pines we saw during that trip that helped turn me onto the study and enjoyment of trees. I was still a bachelor and teaching in Door County when Carl and Ruth Scholz invited Miss Emma Toft and me to join them on a trip to see the world’s largest White Pine tree in northern Wisconsin, near Newald. 

Carl Scholz stands in front of the MacArthur Pine in January 1971.

Called the MacArthur Pine (honoring Wisconsin’s General Douglas MacArthur), it was the national champion White Pine from 1948-1971 until some very lame-brained vandals set it on fire and destroyed it on June 23, 2001. At that time its circumference at the base was 17 feet 8 inches and the tree’s height was 148 feet.

Hardly a winter goes by that I can’t be found on some special sunny day standing knee-deep in the snow-covered field of grasses, goldenrods and Queen Anne’s laces, no manmade sounds to be heard, staring in wonderment at the Skyline Pine, our personal nickname for this venerable giant owned by our neighbors to the south, draped with ermine whiteness. Two thousand years ago it was Pliney, great Roman scholar, who concluded that trees and the forest were the most sublime gift with which nature had endowed man.

Increase A. Lapham, Wisconsin pioneer conservationist, in Transactions of the State Agricultural Society for 1853, wrote, “It is much to be regretted that the very superabundance of trees in our state should destroy in some degree, our veneration for them. They are looked upon as cumberers of the land, and the question is not how they shall be preserved, but how they shall be destroyed.” Hopefully times have changed.

Even though I do not prefer to look at a large White Pine in terms of the potential number of board feet of lumber contained within it, I marvel at the fact that there was estimated to be more than 129 billion board feet of White Pine alone in the northern 27 counties of Wisconsin in 1896.  The Chippewa River watershed contained about 500,000 acres of old-growth White Pine at the time, all long gone now, given in to “relentless butchering.”

With hopes and dreams I gaze at “our” lonesome pine and wonder if it will ever reach its potential of 200 feet in height and six or more feet in diameter. Shallow soil and vulnerability to lightning tend to reduce my estimates. I like to think some of its offspring, from seeds carried by the wind onto our property to the north, will profit by the deeper soil of the glacial moraine where some of them grow. Hopefully a few will produce some towering 175-footers by the year 2285 for the future stewards of our Houby Hill (name of our property) to enjoy.

Even though North America is home to the majority of the world’s pines, the greatest single band of pines in the world stretches across most of Scandinavia and northern Asia, the Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris), better known in the U.S. where it was introduced as the Scotch Pine. I prefer the name of Scots Pine. And please don’t call a person living in Scotland a Scotchman. They are Scots – and they drink Scotch! 

The Scots (or Scotch) Pine has been widely planted in the U.S., northern Germany and Russia. Its gracefully arched branches, rich orange-red bark, and bluish spiraled needles, all make for an exquisitely handsome tree.

For tough pines, consider the Bosnian Pine of the craggy mountains of northern Italy and Yugoslavia, where it shrugs off droughts and thrives in poor chalky soil. Another practically indestructible pine is the Pitch Pine (P. rigida) of the dry barrens of northeastern U.S. This is one of the few pines known to produce sprouts from its base, especially after fires.

This is the “Skyline Pine” that we and others admire so much.

If you’re interested in a bizarre shaped pine, get a Mugo Pine for your rock garden. This fascinating species of the Alps is more of a bush than a tree and has been available from U.S. nurseries for quite a few years.  It surely is a very decorative little pine. My dad planted one on our Kewaunee property in 1936 and it is still doing well.    

It was in October of 1993 that Charlotte and I had the pleasure of getting to see the famous Bristlecone Pines growing in dry mountainous habitat, the White Mountains of eastern California. I’m quite certain I won’t get to see the oldest surviving specimen due to the intense protective policy now adhered to. This came about because of a tragic blunder occurring when the U.S. Dept. of Forestry gave a college professor, doing research on ice ages, permission to cut down a large specimen of Bristlecone Pine for use in his study.

Unknown to the federal people, the professor, armed with a chainsaw, cut down the oldest living tree in the entire world, the champion Bristlecone, aged at about 4,600 years! You would think this precious gem would have had the best of protection, but it didn’t. I understand that the feds pooh-poohed the incident at first, saying, “Well, let’s go into those mountains and simply find an even older one than that which was accidentally cut down.” It so happens that the oldest they were capable of aging, using a harmless increment borer, which the professor should have used too, was a full thousand or more years younger!

Too bad the forestry people didn’t instead tell the ice age expert to cut down a Bur Pine (Pinus pungens), the pine that supposedly had absolutely no business future. Donald Culross Peattie, famous American naturalist-writer, said of the Bristlecone Pine, “Its place is high on mountain ridges, where it looks down on the soaring buzzard, where the wildcat lives, and the rattler suns his coils. In fact it’s a shame there weren’t more rattlers where the largest Bristlecone Pine once grew!”

I look to “our” Skyline Pine as my symbol of liberty. Yes, give me the pines, especially in winter when their crowns are adorned with blizzard blossoms.