It’s June and the dust of pine pollen is flying everywhere. Dangerous time for those with allergies. Sometimes visible yellow clouds of pollen dust sweep across the hills and plains. The golden pollen of staminate cones can pile up on cars and in corners of lots where wind eddies form and collect it.
Pines are some of the most majestic of trees. They are indigenous throughout most of the world’s landmasses, particularly in the northern hemisphere. Common here in Colorado are the Austrian Pine and the Ponderosa.
The Austrian (or Black) Pine was originally brought to America by European immigrants in the mid-18th century. Native to the higher altitudes of central Europe, from Italy to Turkey, its hardiness in a variety of soil conditions and climates led to its wide-spread adoption in America. They are fairly fast growing (1 – 2 ft/year), normally reaching about 50-60 feet, but in ideal conditions can reach heights over 100 feet. Over 200 million were planted during the Depression and Dust Bowl years as an erosion mitigation method and as a jobs program. They are now considered “native” throughout much of the US.
Many confuse the Ponderosa with the Austrian. Both have prickly needles, and their cones are approximately the same size and shape. But there are quick differentiating identifiers. The Ponderosa is generally found above 6,000 ft elevation, the Austrian below (may vary on location, this is for Colorado). The Austrian grows only 2 needles per bunch; the Ponderosa 3 (although most trees have an occasional bundle of only 2). The length of needles are approximately the same, so best to pull off a bundle and count them; when hiking the needles can often be too far up to reach – then I just look on the ground to spot older shed needles; the ponderosa sheds them almost continuously, the Austrian more seasonally, but last year’s are usually findable.
Not only is the Ponderosa capable of growing much taller, it has a more gnarly and grizzled looking bark, with deep grooves and furrows that seem to divide the surface into a pattern of scales and puzzle pieces. This is its fire protection “skin.” As the tree matures, the bark takes on an orange-red hue.
Missing in this discussion is the most important pine — in fact important tree — in north American history: the Eastern White Pine.
This truly stately tree once grew more numerous and thicker than imaginable, across north America’s New England states from Maine to Pennsylvania, from Nova Scotia across Ontario, across Michigan – especially its Upper Peninsula – over to northern Minnesota, and reaching – at higher elevations, following the Appalachians – all the way down to Georgia.
Its 5-needle bunches, are soft and feathery, not prickly. They’re almost like the fine filaments on a portrait painter’s brush. And they are denser in vitamin C than citrusy fruits like lemons and oranges; so they make a healthy herbal tea.
But its importance lay in its prodigious height, and ramrod straight trunks. Often free of branches up to 75 feet, with heights reaching 200 feet and more, it could be considered the “Sequoia of the East.”
By the end of the reign of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, in the first years of the 17th century, England was well on its way to being the preeminent world power, which would end up with far flung colonies and business interests so expansive that “the sun never set on the British Empire.”
To conduct all this commerce the empire required more lumber than was possibly obtainable on the islands. England, from the original Picts and Celts to medieval times, had effectively denuded the island of most usable lumber – it being employed for both construction and heating in those pre-industrial and pre-coal eras. [However, most construction was masonry or simple stonework, the wood being preserved for fuel.] 
And to protect all this money-making commerce the Empire required a large naval fleet, one that could apprehend pirates and fend-off pesky nations’ navies like Spain, the French and Dutch; they all loved to prey upon each other’s goods and staples, and defend trading “lanes” they thought of as their own.
This all required countless tons of stout timber, all to be worked by craftsmen and shipwrights into the spars, decks, keels, hulls, gunwales, and countless other structural components of the day’s ships. [Excellent description of construction here.]
Most difficult and important were the masts, upon which the sails that propelled and tacked the vessel were supported. Ships-of-the-Line, with 96 to 110 guns, had masts that exceeded 200 ft in height. Even a cutter, only about one-tenth the displacement, had a main mast of 130 ft. For a galleon the mast was often 160 feet, with a foremast nearly as long. 
Where would such timber come from? The Brits established trade with regions along the eastern Baltic coast where the Baltic Pine, or the Scots Pine, grew in abundance. Capable of heights over 100 ft, this simplified the construction issue (masts were usually “spliced’ from several pieces with intricate woodworking).
This source had downsides. The Baltic Pines required trade with insecure agreements and market price whimseys. They had to compete with the Dutch and Spanish on price and trade privilege. Also, shipping between England and the Baltic required navigation around the Jutland “peninsula” and through the Danish isles, where they were somewhat prone to pirates and attacks by rivals to their world domination.
Hence the English turned their attention to their colonies in New England, which was more than abundant in tall, strong, straight timber: the Eastern White Pine.
Now, an interesting twist of history occurred. The King lay claim to all the White Pine in the new world realm; surveyors marked them with the king’s seal. However, locals who had settled the land and worked it with the labors of their hands, arms and bodies, and by the sweat of their brow, felt like they had as good a claim to the timber as the king, in fact, better.
In New England the battle between the common hard-working colonialist and the dictate of monarchy started long before the Stamp Act. It goes back to the first years of the 17th century, when England first set its covetous eyes on the riches of the New World.
The conflict bubbled on and on until it got caught up in the colonies’ loud pleas for greater independence in the years following the Seven Years War (or, the French and Indian War – in which colonialists help defeat France for control of the New World in North America).
Finally, full riots broke out. Known as the Pine Tree Riots, its main rebellious insurrection occurred in 1772 when New Hampshirites supported local sawmills by physically accosting the Deputy Surveyor and the Sheriff, catching them unawares asleep at a local inn, and driving them out of town – and brutally mutilating their horses’ faces. As the riots came shortly after The Boston Massacre (1770), emotions were still high and remained so. Although the rioters eventually were caught and received a modicum of “justice”, the outright defiance never ended; in fact, it increased. The received and shared message was that defiance of the Crown was possible. In this way it’s likely that the Pine Tree Riots led directly to The Boston Tea Party (1773) and to the open armed rebellion that followed.
On the morning of April 19th, 1775 a group rebellious Americans faced off with a detachment of British Redcoats at The Old North Bridge, in Concord, Province of Massachusetts Bay. The government, under force of arms had come to relieve them of their rights: including their rights to pine trees, their land, their way of life and the right to defend all those rights, by force of arms themselves, if necessary. The rebels would not back down. The “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired, and the revolution was now in open, armed conflict.
Before Betsy Ross’s contribution became widely accepted, it’s no surprise then that the first flags flown by the Americans in the war for independence had a pine tree on them. The nation’s first naval vessels, six cruisers commissioned by George Washington himself, flew a Pine Tree Flag.
The original flag of New England “patriots” and insurrectionists had a pine tree on a red background. Per John Trumbull’s famous painting, and popular belief, the flag flown by patriots at the Battle of Bunker hill carried an image of a pine tree. [see below]
The great Eastern White Pine has not faired nearly as well as the country whose first flags its inspiring image adorned two and a half centuries ago. Unprotected and reaching high above the forest canopy, it was easily spotted and relentlessly cut down. It’s hard being number one.
Millions were cut and sent to sawmills to build the cities of the growing country. It’s estimated that across North America only about 1% of these giant beauties remain. When Brits found out how wonderful they were, there was an attempt to grow them back home in England, which met with some success.
There have been attempts to repopulate much of the original White Pine native areas in America, but it’s met with only mixed success. Ironically, some of the trees came from England, re-migrating back to their native lands. However, many carried fungal infections, at least four of which are known to plague White Pines, and further flourishing of the species is, sadly, in serious doubt.
There are some very remote pockets in the highlands of southern Europe, from the Alps to the Carpathians, which somehow survived the last glaciation period in isolation, although many there also suffer from fungus induced needle blight. I’ve read of some managed migration of trees to the Carpathians, since the fungus is not as rampant there. Success is TBD.
Some efforts have been underway in the US to preserve the White Pines that remain. Thinning is used to keep the trees spaced enough so that the fungi cannot spread.
Is this a metaphor? As with the country and political movements it inspired and briefly represented, the Eastern White Pine is in distress, and its future appears insecure.
Joe Girard © 2022
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 It’s generally believed that this over-harvesting of lumber over eons contributed to large regions of England and Scotland being unable to self-replenish the trees, leading to what we now call the “moors” or “moorland”; vast wastelands devoid of trees.
 Masts and ships: https://findanyanswer.com/goto/486458].