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Volume 14, Issue 4: Cultura

White Pine

Roy Atwood

The landscape that greeted Englishman William Wood on his 1633 voyage to the Massachusetts Bay colony was unlike anything he or his fellow travelers had ever seen. A wild rocky coastline guarded meadows of wild grasses tall as a man. Lining the meadows were abundant patches of large wild strawberries, gooseberries, and currants. Wandering among the fields, wetlands, and brush were healthy populations of deer, turkey, geese, beaver, and mink. But towering above them all were forests—incredible forests—of enormous oak, cedar, chestnut, hickory, maple, fir, hemlock, and pine. Among all the marvels of the New World, the sheer size and scale of the virgin American forests was breathtaking.1

When the Pilgrims sent their first shipment of colonial treasures back to the Old World on the 55-ton vessel Fortune in 1621, they included only two barrels of furs. The rest of the ship's hold was ladened with thousands of board feet of prime timber, "as full as she could stow." The New World's seemingly inexhaustible forests and the wealth they promised had lured men like Wood to brave the long ocean voyage to New England. By the time Wood had published his New World experiences in New England's Prospects (1634), the Puritans had found a wide array of uses for the different species of trees flourishing in their new homeland.
Shipwrights and coopers, drawing on their familiarity with European species, found the native white oak excellent for the timbers and planks on ships and ideal for barrel staves. Black oak was especially well suited for the underwater portions of a ship's timbers because of its resistance to boring tropical worms. Architects and carpenters, building on their knowledge of the types and uses of the new wood from experience and the ancient wisdom compiled by classical authors such as Vitruvius, whose second of Ten Books on Architecture (written sometime before 27 B.C.) provided a detailed analysis of the various types and properties of tree species, prized cedars and chestnuts for their resistance to rot and durability in exposed and damp environments. White and red cedar was ideal for shingles and fence posts. Colonial architects came to rely on lightweight cedar roofing. New England's sawmills and lumbermen developed significant markets in cedar products. Even some of the local Indians earned "many a pound, by cutting and preparing cedar shingles and clapboards, which sell well at Boston and other English towns adjacent."2 Pitch pine provided pitch, turpentine, rosin, and other adhesives and solvents, all highly priced in the construction and shipbuilding trades. But the most prized of all the New England trees was the towering white pine.
For most of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Royal Navy had been forced to splice shorter pieces of Scotch fir from Baltic forests into masts. As far back as anyone could remember, no European trees were large enough to supply single solid masts for fighting ships. Without strong tall masts, the larger ships became vulnerable to the speed and maneuverability of smaller opponents. When the 1654 war with the Dutch closed the Baltic timber trade to England, the Royal Navy turned to New England's massive white pines.
Between Maine and the Hudson River grew stands of white pine taller and straighter than anything in the known world. The trees stood 120 to 200 feet high, and four to six feet in diameter. When Massachusetts received its new charter in 1691, the crown inserted a clause that reserved for the Royal Navy "all [mast] trees of the diameter of 24 inches and upwards at 12 inches from the ground." The legal protection of specific tree species dates back to at least the Middle Ages when Polish kings made it unlawful to cut down yews. The yew's strength and flexibility were ideal for bows. The Royal Navy believed the white pine possessed similar strategic military importance and so ordered that anyone who "fell, cut or destroyed" such trees without a royal license was subject to a £100 fine per tree. Pitch pines were also protected to maintain the Navy's supply of pitch and turpentine.
Even with legal protection, the giant white pines disappeared from New England's landscape by the 1850s. When Henry David Thoreau finished reading William Wood's description of early Massachusetts, he noted in his journal on the morning of January 24, 1855, how dramatically New England had changed over 200 years. Many of the larger species that had so impressed Wood and his companions had vanished during the previous 200 years. The prized majestic white pine, it turned out, does not grow back so easily when harvested. More aggressive, opportunistic deciduous species had filled in the vacant spots on New England's forest floor. Thoreau, an early transcendentalist tree-hugger, offered a sentimental whimper at the loss of the old-growth forest. He was blind to the gift and legacy of the white pine and its sister species embodied in the impressive homes, businesses, and ships of the new nation. As if to mock Thoreau and later environmentalist whines, the great white pine forests did not vanish. Today, one of the largest stands of white pine in the New World flourishes in our own backyard here in northern Idaho between Moscow and Coeur d'Alene.

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