Friday, May 1, 1998


Small Pines

by Jean Keskulla

When I moved to Massachusetts from New Jersey many years ago, I was aware of having crossed a magical line in the landscape. The woods below that line were all brown in winter; the woods north of the line had green in them year round.

The green of winter and early spring that we are fortunate to have in Massachusetts is not only the green of stately white pines, towering above us; even more so it is the green of small pine saplings, plebians of the understory which crowd one another and make patches and networks of verdant growth under bare oak and above brown leaf litter.

All winter long I watch the pines at eye level from my window, limbs stretched out straight, foliage radiating from twigs like bundles of soft green light. Leaves are just stiff enough to earn the name “needles,” but they are flexible needles; they tickle rather than scratch your face when you brush against them in the woods.

Where I live white pine grows up everywhere, except in maple swamps. We have a thick growth of young ones near one corner of the house. I throw millet among them; juncos and migrating fox sparrows scratch for the seed. For three years in August a mother towhee brought her young to feed among these pines. The fledglings would sit still and call, or bound after her with huge energetic hops. Towhees sometimes build their ground nests in the midst of large dense patches of young white pine. Such places are becoming scarce in Carlisle.

Many people, wanting a view or craving woods made only of tall trees with large spaces between, cut all the small pines in their woodlots. I have seen many woods cleared of small trees and low-bush blueberries. I have seen that what often springs up in the disturbed areas is poison ivy.

Between our yard and the local pond there is a growth of young pine that obscures our view of the water. When we first moved in, we would have liked to cut these young trees so we could see the pond. But I’ve learned to value the living screen. Walking down to the pond in winter I’ve found many sets of tracks crossing mine in the snow. I realize the evergreens make the animals feel safe, concealed, as they circle the pond.

A few weeks ago, an animal climbed up out of the undergrowth near the pond into a bare tree. It was a fisher, member of the weasel family, apparently in pursuit of a squirrel which took refuge in a tree hole. I watched this furry-tailed creature for a long time before it climbed down, vanishing into pine growth.

All over Carlisle, there are patches and seams of small white pines growing. They follow property lines, join hands over stone walls, wave to each other across roads and driveways. They border streams, file over oak ridges, connect with fields and maple swamps. They make animal corridors, used by the deer, fox, coyote, fisher, weasel, turkey, hawk, songbird, salamander, frog, and reptile species that still live in Carlisle.

These green corridors are the arms that hold and protect wildlife, directing them towards the dwindling bodies of woodland, wetland, scrub, and field, that make it possible for us to coexist with what is wild and belongs here.

The small pines of today that shelter animals and attract nesting birds like towhees and hermit thrushes are the tall pines of tomorrow, rising up slowly, ready to take the place left by the patrician giants with their trunks like pillars. After the next great hurricane, small pines, tomorrow’s hope, will be there.

But right now the pines of the understory are fading from notice, disappearing into spring leaf growth, green into green.