I didn’t hear the crash but it must have shaken the earth. It happened sometime in the spring but I‘m not sure just when. I came upon the wreckage when I was out for a walk on a trail through our woods that I don’t usually frequent.
The trail winds through a stand of thick young Balsam Fir with scattered biggish White Pines and spruces. I rounded a bend and there it was, lying across the trail, its great gray trunk horizontal, its roots pulled up to the left, its top lost in a thicket of fir off to the right.
The down tree was one of the scattered White Pine and I was startled at the size of the trunk lying before me. This stand was very young when we arrived in 1977, with no big trees at all. Over the decades we have harvested balsam fir several times as it matured. According to my records, this three-acre piece of grown-up pasture has produced 74,480 board feet of fir over 40 years. Now, virtually all the fir growing in 1977 is gone, either harvested, blown down, or died of old age or other infirmities. The next generation of fir trees is well on its way, with beaucoup trees 15 feet tall that I’ve already thinned once. And here and there, White Pine trees have grown on up into the sky, towering over their lesser brethren.
The big pine across the trail proved to be 28 inches in diameter at breast height (DBH) and an impressive 96 feet tall. Once I sawed off the two butt logs I counted rings and found that this enormous tree was the same age as me, having germinated in the early to mid-1950s. The rate of growth is impressive and the height was a real surprise. It makes me want to find a way to measure the height of some other big pines on our land.
Eastern White Pine is the biggest tree in the forests of eastern North America. Only the hardwood Tuliptree can rival its size, and that species is not common north of Massachusetts. The largest White Pine in Vermont is in Windham County and measured 144 feet tall and 67 inches in diameter in 2013. Impressive, but that tree would have been average in the stands encountered by the first Europeans 500 years ago. A tree measured centuries ago on the site of today’s Dartmouth College was 240 feet tall.
The crash of our pine tree was nothing in comparison to what happened in West Cornwall, Connecticut on July 10, 1989. That morning the tallest trees in New England stood in the 42-acre Cathedral Pines Preserve, owned by the Cornwall Conservation Trust. The tallest had been measured five years earlier by Jack Sobon at 172 feet. The stand was dense, forcing trees to grow tall even with relatively small diameters. The largest diameter measured was 42 inches. There were many tall, slender trees over 100 feet tall and under 18 inches in diameter. The stand had been growing there since the last farmer abandoned the land over 200 years ago. The trees had withstood uncounted severe storms over those two centuries including the hurricane of 1938. But on that fateful afternoon in 1989 three ferocious storms rolled over West Cornwall. They are often described as tornadoes but may have been straight-line down-bursts. They were too much for the Cathedral Pines. In a dense stand, trees support each other, but once a few go down, the rest can fall like dominoes. Thousands of giant pine trees toppled, the first hitting the ground but then the rest piling on top of each other. The sound must have been truly frightening.
Thirty years later, it is interesting to look at the Cathedral Pines stand. The Nature Conservancy, the owner at the time, chose not to salvage logs but rather leave the site alone to let nature take its course. A pocket of big trees survived the devastation and Jared Lockwood has measured them. The tallest he has found is 148 feet tall and 48 inches in diameter. Other species have also attained ripe old age and impressive size. There is red oak believed to be over 200 years old. One Eastern Hemlock has been measured at 134 feet tall.
Bob Leverett, the founder of the Native Tree Society and long-time measurer of the great trees of New England, talks about White Pine representing the “raw power of nature” with its immense size and ability to provide a truly spiritual experience when walking through a grove. He notes that there are lots of places now in New England where White Pine trees are once again growing over 150 feet tall and living over 200 years. It is thought that this species can live 500 years. The oldest documented pine is in western New York and is over 450 years old.
Eastern White Pine is threatened today by both insect and disease. White Pine Blister Rust arrived in North America about 1900 from Asia via Europe. It is a destructive fungal disease that is now pervasive among five needled pines. Windblown spores enter the plant through the needles and the disease spreads inward, eventually reaching the trunk. Cankers become evident on branches and the trunk, which is eventually girdled, killing the tree. Part of the blister rust life cycle must occur in plants of the Ribes genus, namely red, white, and black currants and gooseberries. There seems to be a comeback of currants as a homestead planting, though the plant was banned from sale for decades in an attempt to thwart White Pine Blister Rust. A 50-year campaign to rid North America of Ribes species ended unsuccessfully in 1967. Today rust-resistant varieties of Ribes are available, which should mitigate their role in the destruction of White Pine.
Misshapen White Pine trees are the rule due to a small insect called the white pine weevil. This little quarter-inch-long insect feeds on the leaders (tip growth) of white pines (and some spruces) and then lays eggs in the feeding wounds. The larvae then feed on the inner bark, girdling the leader. In mid-summer, you will see these leaders drooping over as they die. Because White Pine sends out annual whorls of branches rather than buds along the stem, one of the branches below the killed leader will turn up to be the new leader. This causes the telltale crook in the trunks of most White Pine trees. The same tree is often damaged repeatedly, causing one crook after another. More than one branch may turn up, causing multiple trunks. These deformed trees are worthless for lumber.
As if that were not enough, White Pine is declining in many places due to several fungi affecting the needles. It is thought that repeated cool, moist springs and increased rainfall have set the stage for these fungi to thrive. Needles die and drop and heavily infected trees turn a sickly yellow and die.
Eastern White Pine is a magnificent tree. It survived the wholesale destruction of humans with indiscriminate saws and is once again growing tall under sustainable management in many areas of New England. Whether it can survive the natural forces that threaten it now remains to be seen.
Tim McKay is a conservationist, tree farmer, and woodworker in Peacham.