As an entomologist, I’m often asked if I have a favourite insect. It feels like being asked to declare a favourite child, and so I usually say I can’t possibly pick just one.* Now that I work a lot in spruce-fir forests, I’m sometimes asked if I have a favourite tree. That’s a tough one – just in the forests where I live, there’s eastern hemlock, and sugar maple, and tamarack, and American beech, and butternut. But I have a favourite tree anyway, and it’s eastern white pine (Pinus strobus, although honestly, I wish it had a more interesting Latin name).
There’s something about a pine: majestic, soaring, the strong thick trunk with the delicate needles. And those needles: there isn’t much that’s more glorious to walk through than the thick blanket of needles under a stand of white pine. We’ve planted two in our back yard, and one day, their accumulated fallen needles will kill the grass, and we will celebrate, and move our lawn chairs there.
I have a long history with pines. My family has a cottage just southeast of Algonquin Park, in Ontario’s Ottawa Valley, where I’ve been going since I was an infant. “Our” stretch of lakeshore is dominated by white (and red) pines, and they’re the tallest ones around: mature trees two feet, three feet, or more in diameter. The sound of wind in their far-above branches, and the smell of fresh needles above and dead needles underfoot, is balm.
So I was excited to read John Pastor’s new book about pine: White Pine: The Natural and Human History of a Foundational American Tree. It’s clear that Pastor shares my affection for the species, and he writes with passion about its ecology and history. Across much of eastern North America, pine structures the forests in which it occurs; it was important to Indigenous peoples; and following European colonization it came to play a historical and economic role that’s hard to exaggerate. Pine became the species of choice for ships’ masts, at a time when warships under sail were the critical tool behind global political power. Pastor writes about how the value of pine drove exploitation that generated enormous wealth (three times as much as the California gold rush!), but also cleared millions of hectares of landscapes. He pulls together threads from ecology, from history, and even from art to explore the ways natural and human stories are connected by pines. Beyond the naval history, I was particularly interested in the importance of pine to Henry David Thoreau’s evolution as a naturalist and conservationist. Well, much as it’s tough for me to pick a favourite tree, it’s tough to pick my favourite tree facts from the book. I can pick a favourite line from the book, though, and it’s this: “There is wealth, however, in landscapes where we can be awed” (p. 50). Soaring pines do that for me.
Pastor’s book has enough technical content to satisfy a reader with an ecology background (like me!), but it’s not hard going. His writing is graceful, so you learn without straining at the kind of prose you might find (sadly) in a journal paper about pine. About which: as founding editor of the Scientific Naturalist section of the journal Ecology, Pastor has pushed for scientific writing with more elegance and style, writing that reveals the kind of passion Pastor has for pine. That’s a push I am completely behind.
If I have a nit to pick about White Pine, it’s that Pastor focuses on its role as a “foundational American tree” (emphasis mine). We learn a lot about pine’s role in early American history, but little about its role in Canada. Pine was just as important in in Ontario, where logging camps shaped the settlement of the Ottawa Valley and the land that would later host my family cottage. And it was just important in the Maritime provinces, where I live now, and where nearly every ancient pine is misshapen because all the straight trees were harvested for masts. Trees don’t pay much attention to international borders – but every book has to draw its topical borders somewhere, I suppose.
If you have the soft spot for white pine that I do, you’ll love Pastor’s White Pine. And if you don’t have that soft spot yet, reading White Pine just change things.
© Stephen Heard February 21, 2023
Image: a white pine in Killarney Lake Park, Fredericton, New Brunswick; own work, CC BY 4.0. Resemblance to the cover of John Pastor’s book is unintentional, but it’s striking, isn’t it?
*^But that’s a lie. My favourite insect is Fulgora laternaria, the peanut-headed bug. This is the correct opinion to hold and I will take no further questions.
Wow, a review of my new book about white pine (https://islandpress.org/books/white-pine) in Scientist Sees Squirrel! Thanks, Steve! I am honored and humbled by your kind and generous words.
Your point about the near lack of anything in the book on white pine and Canada is well made and well taken (at least I do show on p. 21 the route that white pine took through Ontario in its range expansion during deglaciation). Some of the hardest decisions about writing a book are what to leave out in order to maintain a narrative flow. Perhaps unfortunately, I had to leave out many interesting things that happened in Canada in order to focus on white pine in America. For people who want to learn more about an interesting incident, see the Wikipedia page about the Aroostook War between Maine, New Brunswick, and Quebec over which nation would control the remaining white pine in that region (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aroostook_War). This “war” included the Battle of Caribou between armed Canadian and American lumberjacks (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Caribou).
Again, many thanks and I am happy you enjoyed the book.
Totally understand, John, I’ve had to make those what-to-leave-out decisions for my own books. Thanks for those links!