Back behind our home is a pine. A tall, sturdy, straight-up eastern white pine, Pinus strobus. My arms reach maybe a half of the way around. Its bark is chunky like small woody bricks. And the ground is covered in soft brown needles from years past. During the 2020 pandemic, a day after the president suggested we look ahead rather than mourn the tens of thousands of loved ones gone, I took a walk. And there was that tree. Maybe it sprouted around the First World War or before. Maybe a couple of kids who walked by an unremarkable seedling were drafted and killed in that war. Or maybe they survived. Maybe that tree watched as they carved declarations of love into the beech up the hillside. But that tree. It doesn’t worry about politics or humanity. A good brisk wind, maybe. It has survived decades of weather: drought, wind, ice. That it remains out back behind our home, on the top of a hill surrounded by cow pastures is remarkable. Because for centuries loggers prized these beauties for ship masts and lumber – cutting them one by one, ten by ten, then hundreds and millions. Before the Revolution, the largest of these trees were marked property of the King. Seeds were brought to England, with hopes of growing their own naval masts. Centuries later, after forest became field became forest and nineteenth century loggers became increasingly efficient and home owners wanted pines of their own, the planting of nursery stock became popular. And so began the import of white pine seedlings from Germany, France and Holland, sent by the millions back to their native land, because it cost less to grow and send seedlings across the ocean than to buy them in America.[i] But there was more to the trade than seedlings. Hidden within the thin bark of those imports were the delicate threads of disaster. A fungus called Cronatorium ribicola. This fungus now infects white pines and their five-needle piney relatives across the country — including the iconic white bark pines of the western mountains. Which is why that big pine out back is so remarkable. It is standing tall having dodged both the sawyer’s ax and disease. A survivor, in a time when a pathogen has put survival front and center of our everyday life.
[i] Hummer 2000 History of the Origin of White Pine Blister Rust and The Blister Rust of White Pine, by Perley Spaulding, 1911.
An excerpt from book in progress, about the influence of fungal pathogens in our lives.