How the Mighty Have Not Fallen: the White Pine

Courtesy of Wikipedia – By US FWS, Public Domain,

Now that the leaves are down, it’s time to profile another native tree: the Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus). There are some glorious specimens of this remarkable and storied tree in the Millbrook area. These majestic conifers are beautiful all year, but their true glory is revealed only now in the winter months, when their whorled heads of evergreen needles peak out from the deciduous trees that hide their beauty when the woody world is awash in summer green.

White Pines are one of the few trees easily identifiable from a distance. As you drive through county roads in and around the valley, look for evergreen crowns peeking above surrounding scrubby stands of remnant forest. Their conspicuous whorled crowns, shaped by prevailing winds, are pagoda-like, sculptural and evocative, and this is confirmed in many an iconic painting from the Group of Seven, for whom the White Pine was a favourite subject. The White Pine has an unmistakable profile, and yet no two are alike. From an aerial perspective, I understand, they look like starfish on an ocean floor.

The White Pine is the arboreal emblem of Ontario, and no other tree has had as great an influence on the early development of the province, or, indeed, on the history of European settlement in North America. Its wood was immensely valuable and useful, and White Pine was, at one time, the most sought after timber in the world. Famously, it was particularly well-suited for ship masts. It’s strange to think of White Pine from our general area playing a critical role in the Napoleonic Wars, and yet it happened. Unfortunately, it happened too frequently, and almost all the White Pine from those primeval forests were logged and shipped around the world centuries ago. Some, of course, were also used locally by early European settlements dependent on wood for building material and fuel.

As difficult as it is to imagine “our” trees fighting in European wars, it’s even more challenging to picture a landscape dominated by immense stands of pine 150 to 200 feet high and branchless to 60 or more feet above the ground. Yet this, it seems to me, is what the White Pine demands of us. The tallest tree native to eastern North America will not be forgotten.

Our local White Pines, the ones you see on Jail Hill or by the fairgrounds, remind us of this history. But they also recall us to a still deeper past. You can get a sense of this yourself, if you wish, by walking the lower trail on Medd’s Mountain and keeping an eye out for the impressive specimens to be found there. The American writer and naturalist John Muir once said “between every two pines is a doorway to a new world,” and I think he could not have intended a more tempting portal to the forest primeval than the space between the whispering giants at the foot of Medd’s Mountain. Go out and see!

GET OUT! by Lisa Stefaniak

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