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Tuesday Group: White Pine: The Natural and Human History of a Foundational American Tree

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

On Tuesday, June 20th, Tuesday Group had the pleasure of welcoming John Pastor, a retired University of Minnesota Duluth biology professor, who has been promoting his new book White Pine: The Natural and Human History of a Foundational American Tree.

America was built on white pine. From the 1600s through the Civil War and beyond, it was used to build the nation’s ships and houses, barns, and bridges. It became a symbol of independence, adorning the Americans’ flag at Bunker Hill, and an economic engine, generating three times more wealth than the California gold rush. Yet this popularity came at a cost: by the end of the 19th century, clear cutting had decimated much of America’s white pine forests. In White Pine: The Natural and Human History of a Foundational American Tree, ecologist and writer John Pastor takes readers on a walk through history, connecting the white pine forests that remain today to a legacy of destruction and renewal.

Since the clear-cutting era, naturalists, foresters, and scientists have taken up the quest to restore the great white pine forests. White Pine follows this centuries-long endeavor, illuminating how the efforts shaped Americans’ understanding of key scientific ideas, from forest succession to the importance of fire. With his keen naturalist’s eye, Pastor shows us why restoring the vitality of these forests has not been simple: a host of other creatures depend on white pine and white pine depends on them. In weaving together cultural and natural history, White Pine celebrates the way humans are connected to the forest—and to the larger natural world.

Today, white pine forests have begun to recover, but face the growing threat of climate change. White Pine shows us that hope for healthy forests lies in understanding the lessons of history, so that iconic species survive as a touchstone for future generations. The book can be purchased online at Island Press: use code PINE for 20% off!

During Pastor’s presentation to Tuesday Group he talked about how his dad was a carpenter who used a lot of white pine for his craft. While growing up, Pastor associated the smell of white pine with his father, and how “even sitting in church you could smell the white pine in the pew” when sitting next to him. Pastor learned quickly how significant white pine is: “it’s the foundation of the Northwoods itself.”

White pine originally came from the east, near New England, and was brought here by glaciers sweeping across the nation thousands of years ago. When colonizers showed up to the United States and logging began, it grew into a gigantic industry incredibly quickly. White pines were cut down at alarming rates: “This was the pine that built America” said Pastor. White pine was used as ship masts during the American Revolution, and was once the symbol on the settlers’ flag. At one point, the King of England tried to come over to America and claim all white pines over 24” in diameter as his, and if they were to be cut down they were to be sent to him. The settlers did not take kindly to this, and drove out the surveyors who came to mark the trees. Not only did this start some conflict between the settlers and the King, but it also lit a spark in the settlers hearts, and this incident is seen as a precursor to the Boston Tea Party.

When white pine started showing up in Minnesota, there were native people on this land that got to watch the white pine take its original roots here. There were five tribes living here at the time who were all at war; rumors are that the white pine’s five needles represented the five tribes coming together and stopping the war to be conjoined as one. White pines live anywhere from 300-500 years, and their locations and succession can be tracked by pollen records. White pine succession largely depends on the red squirrel population; red squirrels take the pinecones and disperse the seeds within them when they harvest food.

Earlier in the 21st century, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) planted white pines as part of Roosevelt’s push for reforestation and white pine conservation. The CCC was an organization created during the Great Depression to provide working class families with jobs they otherwise wouldn’t have. The CCC was created by the government and it paid civilian workers to do many jobs within the community from building and paving roads to planting white pines. The CCC ended up planting 6.5 billion white pine seedlings in 10 years! There’s an amazing quote from an unknown CCC member about their work experience planting white pines: “We worked in a world alive with beauty more lovely than I had ever known.”

Pastor also talked about a man named Jack Rajala, who was a conservationist and forest products businessman who served as chief executive of the Rajala Companies of Deer River, MN. Although this company started with lumber sales, they realized the true value of the white pine and its importance for future generations to see. Their forest management initiative has the goal to restore the numbers of white pine and other long lived conifer species to its historic population in northern forests. This type of forest management is called ecological silviculture; the management emulates natural disturbances (ex. fire, storms, floods) and manages the ecosystem as a whole, not just pieces. This allows the natural processes of the forest to take its course, which is a more sustainable style of management. Their mission is very moving and incredibly necessary in today's climate, so please click HERE to check out the Rajala Woods Foundation’s website.

As a community, we are so thankful that John Pastor shared his time and knowledge with us. White pine is incredibly important to the ecosystem around Ely; it supports eagle’s nests, red squirrel families, provides scratch posts for deer, and supports the butterfly population. Historically, white pine was abundant and present: today, although we see a big white pine every once in a while, it seems as though the old growth forests of white pine have disappeared. It is important to continue the conservation, planting, and management of white pine forests and stands for our future generations of children to see, and also for the ecosystem to be consistently abundant. We are lucky in Ely to have so many people who are so conservation oriented and who love learning about how they can be better stewards of nature.

To purchase John Pastor's book, White Pine: The Natural and Human History of a Foundational American Tree, please click HERE and enter code PINE for 20% off! Click HERE to be taken to John Pastors “about the author” page.

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