The Survivors

After hours of inventorying plots of northern hardwood forests our caravan of minivans pulls to the side of the dirt road. Our professor takes off into the forest leaving many of us 20-somethings struggling to keep up with the 75 year old man. He disappears between two trees and we trustingly follow. After 15-minutes of bushwhacking, we find ourselves surrounded by a grove of red pines. The pink-brown bark extends at least 100 feet into the sky. The crowns of the pinus resinosa tower so far above us we cannot make out any needles, except those that litter the forest floor.

It is unusual to find a natural growth pine stand in Michigan. Following the destructive harvesting of all pine forests throughout the state in the late 1800s, fires burned uncontrolled for 40 years killing any remaining trees and permanently changing the composition of the soil. Other northern hardwood trees such as maple, beech, and oak overtook the land leaving the white and red pine unable to reclaim much of their territory.

A few pine stands survived the inferno. Despite the cutting and burning during the catastrophic logging in Michigan, the understory of this red pine stand was protected by a wetland to the north that acting as a firebreak, and a lake to the south that cooled the site. The surviving small seedlings became the trees that now tower over us. Unlike human-planted second-growth forests, which are increasingly common, these trees are not in rows and are instead spaced as the natural world intended them to grow. Pine trees in Michigan are struggling to return to their home place and small pines can be found on the floor of forests struggling to survive, but it will be hundreds of years before a natural pine-dominated forest will be able to establish itself.

by J. Thomas