7 Pinus (Pine Genus)

Being Present with Grief


Pinus is pronounced like ‘high-ness’. Belonging to the Pinaceae family of conifers, pine trees produce distinctive female cones with a structural similarity across species that forms on the end of their thick seed scales. In botany, this nub is called the umbo, a word easier to use than the many words needed to describe it (also useful for crosswords and Scrabble). The umbo is the first year’s growth nub protruding from the end of the 2nd year’s seed scale. All pines take two years (a few take more) for their female cones to mature, at which point the pinecone is fertilized. The umbo can present as a sharp spike or prickle. Or the umbo can be flat and small with no prickle, depending on species. In this way, umbos are very useful for identifying Pinus species, especially because no other conifer genus has them.

Ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa) umbos have large, spiky prickles, worth a few pinpricks for their decorative effect when collected in a basket. The needles on a ponderosa grow in clusters of 3s, sometimes with 2s and 3s. In the heat of the sun, the bark emanates a sweet scent reminiscent of vanilla or butterscotch but of course is its own sweet ponderosa scent. My dad shared this last fact with me at some time or other, so long ago that I can only recall it as a pleasant memory wafting and lingering invisibly on the air. Ponderosas are one of those long-lived species that can reach 300-600 years of age, sometimes more – a calming thought as I visualize the vast stands of these trees flourishing through the seasons, decades and centuries of life in their native range from southern Canada into Mexico.

Having just returned from lunch, I pass by the ponderosas feeling refreshed and ready for an afternoon session of tree tagging by myself. The park ponderosa does not need a new sign, and their grove looks great. In my pouch, however, is a somewhat weather beaten sign I removed from the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) on my way to lunch just over an hour ago. Rivulets of pitch had wept down the white pine’s length over time and onto the sign’s surface, leaving semi-transparent, amber colored gummy trails. Cleaning the sign off instead of replacement seemed the logical next step. During lunch, I had given it my best effort scrubbing away as much of the pitch as I could without damaging the text. My reward for this is that the surface is now much improved.

For now, the eastern white pine will have to wait for its sign until I can circle back to it a bit later. At the moment, the head Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and I are facing each other. Strong and stalwart, this brave leader stands at the top of a gentle slope that descends through an extensive battalion of other Scots pines. I have chosen this tree to receive the replacement sign (its original somehow got lost) because, once again, the remnants of one of those red metal tags my dad placed here almost two decades ago still holds on to its trunk. Unlike the blue spruce and Doug-fir tags, however, barely anything remains of this one. Just two metal bits spaced three inches apart and each held in by a nail, very easy to miss. This is why neither Susan Jane nor I noticed the tree on our two previous forays. Just like with the blue spruce, the happy accident of two weeks ago stumbling across the previously tagged tree made the choice of which Scots pine to ID out of all these superb ones simple. This head Scots pine truly represents the grove.

Pausing a moment before affixing the sign, I take in the view of the beautiful Scots pines before me. In and among the mature trunks, patches of the bark on several of the tree branches are rubbed smooth, being a favorite for young visitors who sling their hammocks between them throughout the lazy months of summer into autumn. In fact, one or two hammocks are out there right now. Still managing to stand at attention, the Scots pine compatriots recede slowly down the slope into the distance, providing food and nests along the way for woodpeckers, owls, songbirds, and small mammals. This is a sweet oasis of the park. Traffic noise is minimal here. A small area of woods grows somewhat wildly off to the left acting as a buffer zone between here and the busy street beyond the walking trail. It is a restful and charming place.

Scots pines (also called Scotch pine) easily live 300 years or so and are recorded reaching 400 years and older. Their pine needles grow in clusters of two, always in twos as do red pines, jack pines and Austrian pines. The upper branches on older Scots reveal a luscious orange color making this pine truly stand out and is a prime way to distinguish it from others of its genus. Frost tolerant and somewhat adaptable to drought, Scots pines are the most widespread conifer in the world. They have historically been a significant part of commercial use for pine tar production as well as their resins distilled into turpentine and rosin solids. Think of the smearing and rubbing pine tar onto baseball bats (or wooden skis bases) and rosining a violin bow, just for starters.

I begin affixing the new Scots pine sign, by now much more comfortable with tapping in nails. It’s relaxing here on this pleasant afternoon. Usually I ignore passersby, but all of a sudden, a voice floats over that gets my attention. Sensing that it is directed towards me, my head turns that way. A couple is just coming into view about 40 feet distant, after rounding the bend in the asphalt path. Before this, the buffer zone had hidden them from view.

“A woodpecker!” a man’s voice calls over to me.

I’m confused. Are they telling me they saw a woodpecker just now? Or what? Then I see the light as the situation reveals itself and smile. I call back from my tree,

“It probably sounds like that, what I’m doing, doesn’t it?”

“Yes! We were surprised to see that it’s, in fact, a person!”

I laugh as they continue on, merrily giving the nails a few extra woodpecker taps for good measure. I love being mistaken for a woodpecker, any time!

Taking respectful leave of our Scots pine, I circle round to the area where the park district commissioned a meditative labyrinth. A round slab here offers seekers of calm a route to slowly open and enter their heart, an emotional invitation using carefully thought out symmetry etched into the cement. I skirt to the side of the labyrinth. Just past it, a young Austrian pine (Pinus nigra) grows right next to our state tree, the red, or Norway pine (Pinus resinosa). Both of the pines located here are about the same age and height which presents the perfect opportunity for comparing and contrasting. At first blush these two are twin look-alikes. Once you get to know them, however, telltale differences pop out.

Very slightly longer than red pine needles and occurring just like red pines in needle clusters of two, Austrian pine needles are slightly thicker and darker and can also show a slight twist. A useful ID method is to try folding the needles of the two species in half. A red pine needle will snap in two if you do this. An Austrian pine needle on the other hand usually just flexes without breaking. Austrian pinecones also have a sight prickle on their umbo that recedes as the cone matures. Red pine umbos are always flat and smooth even on the first year’s growth. Austrian pine bark is darker with a silvery tone as compared with the reddish plates of the red pine.

Called European black pine in Europe, Austrian pine was one of the first European trees introduced to North America (in the mid 1700s) due to both its beauty and adaptability to all kinds of soil and growth conditions. Their native range is huge, from Europe into Turkey southward to Cypress and even North Africa. Homesteaders on the plains had the most success with seed stock from Austria and the Balkans, so they became known in the US by their seed source name. During the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, Austrian pine’s ability to withstand dust storms brought them in with a mix of other hardy tree species used for windbreaks. CCC and WPA workers planted over 217 million Austrian pines in what President Roosevelt called the Great Plains Shelterbelt project stretching from the Canadian border of N. Dakota all the way down to Amarillo, Texas. Climate change, however, is creating a new stressor to these (and other pine species) that is proving more difficult to hold out against.

How wonderful it is for me to be speaking about pines! I can’t slip up, for these are all truly pine trees. Pines speak to my heart. These two healthy youngsters before me, Austrian and red, are too young for tags. Their species’ ambassadors are elsewhere in the park, but I take a moment to step back and enjoy the sight of them before brushing my hands over their bushy pine needle clusters in loose strokes of acknowledgement as I continue past. Soon enough, I come round full circle to the grand pine that speaks to my heart most of all, the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), radiating in its beauty and strength just off the western side of the walking path and surrounded by its companions. Completely unruffled at being left signless during lunch, my tree is busy streaming its energy in concert with the breeze playing through its leaves up top, making white pine music. Positioning myself at its base, I gratefully receive any morsels floating down, mere mortal that I am.

Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) can easily reach 200 years of age, and some are recorded at over 450 years old. When settlers arrived from England in the 1600s, they marveled at the vast stands of hickory, beech, and sugar maple forests out of which rose the straight, towering eastern white pines emerging from the canopy. Vast stands, as in Minnesota, also grew in disturbed areas or along sandy, well drained riverbanks and open areas, often kept that way through the intervention of Native Americans who used fire culture to keep down the underbrush. This aided both ease of travel and hunting. For the colonists, Pinus strobus quickly became sought after for Royal Navy ship masts; for, by this time, Scots pines had been almost entirely cut in Great Britain for this use and access to other nations’ Scots pines was cut off for political reasons. At the same time, colonists were using this wood for basically everything else, bridges, homes, businesses, furniture – building this nation. Another thing that eventually was imported was an invasive fungus detrimental to the eastern white pine, called white pine blister rust, still with us today.

Taking out my freshly spruced up eastern white pine tag, I tap it back into the same nail holes as before only deeper now and spaced away from the trunk.

Lifting my gaze upwards at this particular, individual exemplar of its species, I let my attention flit from branch to whorled branch spiraling skyward. As I do so, my mind wanders back to the day of leading my first tree trek, seven months after my dad died. I am standing now in the same place I stood then, here beside this last tree on my planned route to end the two hour trek. It was a conclusion, however, that ended up being somewhat more truncated than intended as my emotions sprang to the surface beneath this very white pine. I was just finishing up my remarks to the group adding,

“This is my favorite tree species. I can get really emotional standing beneath such mature, beautiful white pines like this,” and then found myself doing just that, my eyes welling with tears in front of the group. The next moment, I could no longer speak. All I could think of to do was to end the talk right there and then.

“I dedicate this Tree Trek to my dad, Chet Mirocha” I managed to say, “Thanks, everyone, for coming.”

Then, as the group dispersed slowly, the woman I now know as Susan Jane and one or two others had walked back with me to the parking lot. My composure quickly and easily recovered, and we conversed about this and that. I recall that moment of suggesting to Susan Jane the idea for an expansion of the tagged trees as soon as she shared with me that she was on the Committee. After that, we all pleasantly took our leave of one another and returned to our cars.

My first tree trek event was completed and successful. It felt great, but I was not ready to leave just yet. I had one more important stop to make that day.

My route was roundabout to get there as first I took some time to walk alone among a few of the trees I’d just talked to the group about. I returned to the ponderosa grove where one of the participants had told me ripe mulberries were abundant nearby. Sure enough, their deep purple berries enticed me over just beyond to where the mulberry trees overlook the busy street below. After eating several of these, I was finally ready to proceed over to my dad’s memorial tree located in the park. It was freshly planted, and this would be my first time seeing it. It was time to pay my first visit. His memorial tree is a young, eastern white pine I chose and purchased through the park program with the funds a group of loving friends and family donated to help reach that goal. As I approached, the tree beamed its little branches out at me and shining just as beautifully in person as the photo the city forester had sent me. A living thing to perpetuate his memory, and perfect for my dad.

“This is for you, Dad,” I thought, as I lay on my back next to the tree in the sunshine, and then moved over to do the same in the nearby shade.

Winding down.

Lying there, I breathed in and out, listening to the chirping birds, the distant voices, the rustling leaves in this quiet area of the park, remaining completely present to my surroundings. My mind had nothing more to think about at the moment, no inner conversation to ruffle things, nothing to plan for. Tree Trek was completed for today; no more energy needed there. My hands were stained from the mulberries with which I had just replenished myself – pigged out on, really. I smiled at the red stained palms I was holding up above my face to observe.

I lay there a long time.

My heart reached out to my dad through that quiet, amiable tree growing nearby and planted in his name. Glowing and healthy, its green needles point upwards as we all must do daily, reaching towards the life-giving sky and allowing our leaves and needles access to whatever comes down into our lives, hearts and minds. Trees just naturally know how to do this! There is no getting around it for humans, although sometimes it isn’t easy. Tree roots also naturally know how to go down dark and deep finding respite and nourishment in the life-giving coolness of the damp mulch and soil below. So must we, although again, it’s not entirely easy to become fully aware of the soil in which you are planted.

From out of the blue, lying there, a myriad of emotions generated within me like rays of light, and moved outward spontaneously. Sadness. Relief. Joy. Shame. Grief. They flowed through my body one at a time, and I let them. Did not resist. Each emotion felt enormous until it finished passing through and vanished. I waited for them all to release and then watched them go.

Exhilarated and exhausted at the same time, I stood up at last, got out my car keys, unlocked the car, took a drink of water, and did all the practical things my body knew what to do that were necessary for driving away from the park. My mind was on autopilot.

It all felt wonderfully good.

Warm, late afternoon sunlight now slants down through the white pine’s branches onto my face, and from its massive trunk creates a shadow growing longer on the pine needle carpet below. A nearby woodpecker (a real one) is rat-a-tat tapping, recalling me back into the present. I’m tired after my first day of tree tagging. The afternoon has been productive on many levels. A feeling of peace fills me as I walk back to the van. My tool belt feels heavier now and it’s a relief to remove it to the back seat. My husband has been with my mom all afternoon. It’s definitely time to get back to them and call it a day.

Tomorrow will come.

The sun will rise, and it will be time to begin again.


Tree Trek Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Mirocha Ellison. All Rights Reserved.

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