On Pinecones

Wandering in the Guilford woods, there are fewer pinecones than I expect. I find one, small and green, closed tightly around itself. I try to pry open the scales, but it feels glued shut, and a sticky resin now coats my fingertips. Rolling my hands together, the pine resin doesn’t budge.

There are only a few pinecones that have opened up for the season, ready to release seeds. Pinecones only open up in the heat, careful to protect their seeds. They don’t necessarily drop every season, or every year; some of them can cling to the tree for up to 10 years. They’re in no rush, and don’t need to follow our sense of time. For a tree that can live over 150 years, 10 years is a blink. They want to nurture their cones, let them grow and mature, and finally, when they’re ready, release them to the ground, where they only have a small chance of spreading the seeds.

Loblolly pines usually grow in muddy areas; the word “loblolly” actually means “muddy puddle.” The pinecones drop in areas ready for fertilization. The “female” cones are the ones that hold seeds, and the ones that we see and pay attention to. The “male” cones are simply pollinators, apparently rarely noticed.

Pinecones have been a source of symbolism, of art, throughout my life. In preschool we made turkey decorations out of them, sprinkled them with cinnamon and created feathers out of pipe cleaners. It’s something that still sits in my family’s house, hidden on a shelf, brought out around Thanksgiving. At summer camp, we used to throw them into the fire, watch them pop and explode. It’s a symbol of letting go, but also of memory and rebirth. A program here in Greensboro for kids dealing with a parent’s cancer has a tradition of throwing pinecones into fires after sharing their fears and their grief. It’s a way of letting go, but also of hope.

I once met someone who, whenever she was struggling with loss, would build a fire and toss a pinecone in it. “They only release their seeds in fire,” she says to me. “I don’t know, it feels like a metaphor.” She tosses a pinecone into our campfire. She doesn’t say what she’s mourning this time.

I can’t help but feel excited whenever I come across a pine cone that hasn’t been chewed up by a hungry squirrel or other animal. There’s something beautiful about a whole pine cone, freshly fallen and open, ready to tackle the world, yet still so fresh and new. They’ve been around long enough that we have fossils of ancient pinecones, yet they still remain nearly the same. They’ve figured out a system that works, and they’re consistent. The pinecones know what they’re doing. They may be new and fresh to this world, but their tall, tall parents watch over, guide the cones with their roots, and continue to grow.

Prozac for Pines

Upon reading about pine trees, I found that one common issue with the growth and spread of the tree is inbreeding depression. While I initially was struck with the thought of, “What does depression look like for trees? Do trees have emotions?” it turns out that inbreeding depression is a complicated situation of genotype processing. There are inbred and outbred trees; from what I can tell, it has to do with the pollination of the plants, and leads to some trees or pine forests doing worse than others. If you understand scientific and biological jargon and want to look further into this, you can find information on the study here.

Though trees may not have clinical depression, there are theories that trees experience feelings.

Peter Wohlleben argues that trees live in communities, and I can’t help but agree in looking at the Guilford woods. The trees grow in a way that allow others to continue to thrive. They work together; their crowns reach higher and higher, but still offer light to younger trees whose crowns are still forming.

Trees can warn each other of danger – they tell one another, through various releases of chemicals, when an animal is eating one. Wohlleben even says that they “register pain.” I gently touch a pine tree, and wonder if they can register a hug. I hug the tree, and the bark flakes stick to my shirt. I don’t feel the tree hugging back, and I feel a little ridiculous.

Do the trees in the Guilford woods have personalities? Are there trees who refuse to shed their needles, who are still holding onto 30-year-old leaves for sentimentality? How do these trees feel when it rains, when their pinecones are washed away? Do they know which trees have grown from their own seeds? Do they protect? Where are their emotions stored?

I don’t know why I feel comforted by trees sometimes. Why, in their looming over me, huge trunks that I’ve been warned since I was a kid could crush me instead comfort me. They don’t feel anything about me. They don’t notice me. I am nothing, and yet I’m also here.

Trees will scream at a frequency humans cannot here. When they are thirsty, they scream. This does not bring the rain. It does not bring water to the roots. But, still, the trees scream and I can’t help but wonder who they’re screaming for. Will anyone hear their sadness? Do the other trees share the desperation? If they can scream, why not sing, too?

The biology department did not have answers as to whether my Prozac would help a tree with its depression. More research needed.

The Quiet Trees

Before the Quakers, there were trees.

The oldest fossil of a pine tree is charred wood from 140 million years ago. Hidden in the Guilford woods is the pine forest. Loblolly pines primarily grow here, their branches hovering just below the clouds. We don’t know exactly when or why they were planted, but some time in the past century, the forest of pines began to spread its roots. Now, the needles guard the dirt, create layer upon layer of fortification against the echoing ground.

Some pine trees grow as much as two feet a year. Other species only grow a foot a year. Though we often lump pine trees together based on their needles, we should take a step back, look at them closely. Which ones have bark clinging to the trunk? Which ones are flaky?

The ground, coated with pine needles, muffles any echos of my friend’s “hello.”

The trees are allowed to be free, to grow at their own rate, to change and stay still with seasons as they please. They let their needles go throughout the year. They don’t wait until the weather tells them it’s time, or until the other trees begin to brown. They grow green and drop brown all year long, needles constantly changing. Their pine needles grow in groups of three, never single and alone. They drop in threes. They stick together, and are consistent. They have a routine.

Loblolly pines are North Carolina’s primary source of timber, and are often used because of how quickly they grow. Their bark is best at around 60 years. The trees in the Guilford pine woods are at their mature state, bark flaking off. The Guilford woods are one of many that hosts pine trees; it’s planted all over North Carolina. If trees could vote, loblolly pines would win by a large margin.

One entrance to the Guilford woods, bright and green with springtime blooming.

The Guilford woods, though constantly changing, having existed in some form for hundreds of years. Though our loblolly pines are still young, they are surrounded by older trees. Here, there are tulip poplars, white oaks, dogwoods, and more. The greenery of the woods in spring covers the trees and the paths, a blur of chlorophyll at every turn.

Hauntings

I hear of a rumor that the pine woods at Guilford are haunted. I hear that they’re a portal to another dimension, another world. I post this on my Twitter, and one of my classmates reaches out, tells me that they’ve heard spirits in the woods. Another says they brought a dowsing rod into the woods, spoke to the creatures in another dimension. There are a lot of dead dogs in the woods, they say. The dogs can protect you from the negative spirits. Don’t go to the pine woods alone.

The next day, I go to the pine woods alone, ask my roommate Theo to join me when he gets out of his class.

I find a stick that I can use as a makeshift dowsing rod. I feel silly, but ask, “Is anyone else here?”

I’m not sure how exactly to use a dowsing rod. You’re supposed to use two sticks, and the ghost can move them. However, all I have are twigs, and I hold them out, wait for an answer. The sticks shake a little with my hands, but don’t seem to be nodding or moving on their own. The wind asks me to move them slightly.

I drop the stick. If there’s a ghost, I leave it to them to appear and let me know they want to haunt me.

While I’m waiting for Theo, I look for pinecones. It feels as though it should be easier than it is to find them, but most of them are chipped or broken. I want a complete, full, whole pinecone. Instead, I find twigs and needles, twigs and needles.

I dig through the needles, see how deep they go. It turns into dirt about two inches down. My hands smell like pine, and I put my hands below the needles. I worry a spider or beetle will crawl out, climb up my arms, think I’m a tree to make a web on.

I’m still sitting on the ground when I hear Theo’s voice.

“See any ghosts yet?”

“I think they’re waiting for you.” I brush the pine needles back over the small indent where I’d placed my hand. My nails have dirt underneath their beds, and I rub my palms together, heating the dirt into the creases on my hands.

Theo and I lay on the pine needles, looking to the sky. I listen for sounds, but the only clear ones I hear are my own small movements on the needles. A warbler sings its song up above, dissolving in the wind. I hear my own breathing. Theo clears his throat. I close my eyes, try to feel the land.

Pines in the Clouds

When I go back out to the pine forest during a cloudy weekend, I find myself lost. I took a wrong turn, ended up all twisted around. I try to remember which trees are where. I’ve been in the woods, now, many times. I know the path to the pine woods. But one moment of second-guessing and I’m back, lost, in the middle.

I pass by a fire pit with empty wine bottles surrounding it. I know I’m close, but I don’t know which way to go. I wander around it, realize I’ve gone in a circle. It’s not til I see the tree split in two, one of the ones that grew like conjoined twins, that I realize where I am. I turn right at the twins, back on track.

The conjoined twins, sideways because of my lack of ability to edit the image. They remind me of a fork. A few of these occupy the woods. Note: this picture from a sunny day, not the cloudy day in question.

The pine trees stand tall and straight about fifty feet away now. I walk closer towards them, smell their needles on the ground. I’ve been telling myself since I learned of it that I’ll make pine needle tea sometime. It’s high in vitamin C, but no one who’s tried it seems to like the taste.

The pine forest feels quieter this time. It’s gentle. Classmates say the pine portal is to an evil world, but I can’t believe that. If the pine forest is a portal, it’s taking out the bad. It’s taking out the needless noise and the anger and the frustration.

No one gives the loblolly tree with 34 knots on its sides any kind of diploma. They don’t graduate. The 4-year-cycle of students doesn’t mean anything to the loblolly I’ve been watching over the past few months. Instead, it continues on, growing and growing. I don’t know how to live like a loblolly. Everything is constantly changing, yet I don’t feel calm the way the trees do. Burn and grow, burn and grow.

I took a pine cone on one of my trips to the woods, and brought it back home. It sits in my windowsill, not warm or dry enough yet to open and let out its seeds. I hold it, the prickles protecting the interior.

I thought about burning it. I thought about mourning the loss of my campus community, of this student relationship with the woods. But it’s not time yet to mourn. I toss the pinecone out of my window. One day, it will heat up and plant its seeds. It will burn and grow, burn and grow.

Today, it waits. Today, I wait. The pine trees grow on.

Pine Needle Tea

The pine forest in the Guilford woods is not obvious. To get there, you can take a few trails. Go at the entrance with the gate, or try the Underground Railroad entrance. You might not find it right away. You may need a hand from a friend. Cross the water, but careful not to slip on the rocks.

If you do slip, your feet may sink entirely into the mud. Find a friend with a hose. It’ll work better than cleaning them in your bathtub.

I first visited the pine forest during the summer. Immediately upon being surrounded by the trees, the air feels cooler. The friend who showed it to me, Theo, said it was because of the wind trapped in the trees. I don’t know how their branches hold the wind, release it gently, but it makes it the perfect place for hanging out in the heat of a NC summer.

The pine trees I see have fragile bark; they seem soft, and when we hang up hammocks, much of it peels off. I feel bad, wondering how much damage I’m doing to the trees, seeing bits of bark fall to the ground. It reminds me of working at summer camp, where we had a weekly ceremony: kids would find pieces of bark on the ground — we emphasized that they could not peel the park off the trees — and we’d put a birthday candle on them. We call these baby boats. Together, we all sat on the dock on the river. We light one candle, passed from person to person, then everyone places their baby boats in the water, and we sing songs about loneliness and trees and camp friendships that will never die, though we know deep down we’re never going to keep that penpal relationship with Katie for very long. This ritual is important to the camp; it’s a tradition that feels like a beautiful closing of a week. But at what cost environmentally? Are we all destroying the earth, bit by bit, in the name of sentimentality? What am I doing now as I put up my hammock and bark peels off?

Sometimes what we think is the most harmful to trees is not, in actuality, always the most harmful. A website told me that drilling hooks into trees can be better for the tree when hanging hammocks. I don’t want to drill into a tree; it feels more permanent, more invasive. I don’t know what this means about me.

My friend Josie lays on an eno in the pine woods.

At camp, the pine trees were a way of knowing we were in a temporary home, because you could smell the pine at all times. If you make pine needle tea, it will give you vitamin C. I told this to all of the campers I lead. I never have tried it myself. I want to, and I think about it, and yet I resist. I resist the taking of the needles out of the woods, into a house with a tea kettle. I resist the urge to build a fire, right there, boil some water, and drink some pine needle tea. I don’t want to ruin what I’ve imagined it tastes like. I like to imagine it tastes like the feelings I had at camp. Like it’s the same as the feelings I have, now, in the woods, looking around. The smell of pine, the coolness of the air. I don’t know why I still resist.

The First Seed

When I see the Guilford woods for the first time, I only go on the trails. It’s 2016, and I’m a recent transfer student. I’ve come from a school where there are no trees. There are no woods. There are roads. There are squirrels. The trees are young but their roots have not claimed the land yet. Here at Guilford, trees are everywhere. Not only in physical form, but in spirit: the t-shirts have trees, the school talks about core values and I can’t help but imagine them as roots. I’ll find out later that our tree, our roots, need tending. But now, I am new. Now I am exploring this new space.

The Underground Railroad tour is one of the first experiences many Guilford students have at the school. Today, there is a structure built to view the tree, made of a bright wood that you can see some ways away from the actual tree. (I am not sure what kind of wood it is, though I would like to ask. Is it made of the same wood as the trees around it? What is the story of these panels of wood; are they sibling to the trees that surround them? More on this, perhaps, in a later post.)

The Underground Railroad tree is famous for its age; it’s a tulip poplar that is over 200 years old. Its been in the woods we now call the Guilford Woods long enough to see the region change. Tulip poplars are a fast-growing tree; their leaves can be used for oil-blotting. It’s a small use, but it’s one that as a camp counselor I loved to share with the kids. (Careful though: you don’t want them rubbing poison ivy on their faces.) The wood of a tulip poplar is inexpensive but sturdy, often used in the sidings of homes.

The Underground Railroad tree, as a simple seed, had no reason to expect anything other than human interaction. There was no reason for this seed to believe it would grow to be the oldest tulip poplar in these woods; that it would be a monument to the horrific, long-lasting, still relevant issue of slavery and racism. It grew without knowing that it would keep growing, that it wouldn’t be stunted by humans in the same way its siblings were. How old was it when it first saw people running through the woods in pursuit of a freedom stolen from them on land stolen from another civilization? What did this seed expect? What did it get? What memories does this tree hold onto, and can we see it in the ridges in the roots, which spread out around the tree?

Upon my first tour of the Underground Railroad Tree, we were allowed to sit on its roots. There’s a small crevice in the tree that makes it the perfect sitting spot. It’s a tree that is wider than any I’ve seen before; certainly it is wider than any that I have come this close in contact to. Today, they ask that people do not walk on the roots. We want to preserve the tree; we want it to last forever, though we know that is impossible. This tree represents what Guilford College strives to be: wise, knowing, continuing to grow. James Shields, who lead the tour, began singing “This Little Light of Mine.” Students joined in. We sang together. I felt like I belonged there, with the trees, with the students, with the community.