Pondering Pine Trees

May 21, 2019

It is spring now, and raining, but just a couple of weeks ago, at the very end of March, I was hiking in the hilly woods of western Massachusetts, and there was still a couple feet of snow.

There were not the usual deer tracks that morning- I can’t imagine where they could have been after the long winter- but I did see some squirrel tracks and some others I could not identify.  There was also some scat down by the brook that I think was left by a mink- one had been seen there recently.

It was howling the previous night, and the wind had left its signature: the surface of the snow was littered with debris- plant debris- twigs and branches and buds and tiny seeds and other unidentifiable material.  It helped me understand just how much food a forest can hold- even in winter.  Nature’s bounty was splayed out on the bosom of the snow. 

What especially drew my eye that overcast morning was a cluster of pine needles.  The pines in western Mass are exclusively white pines.  These are not a rarity on the lower Cape, but are less common on the outer Cape, and I know of only one clump in the woods of Provincetown, which are full of the more familiar scrub or pitch pine. 

I love the white pine’s softer texture, its fluffiness, compared to the stouter, stiffer, more robust, well…scrubbiness of the scrub pine.  The white pine’s needles are softer, longer, and there are five of them in each bundle (or fascicle), compared to the scrub pine’s three needles to a bundle. 

And so I thought…why does the white pine have bundles of five while the scrub pine has bundles of three? 

A naturalist is someone who observes the life around him or her and thinks about underlying causes and relationships.  A naturalist is someone who believes that there is randomness, yes, but more often there are reasons for the way things are.  What could possibly be the adaptive value of having five slender needles, as opposed to three coarse ones?  I don’t know.  The answer most certainly involves many variables beyond the scope of this essay- and my intelligence.  I do know that white pines grow in rich well-drained soil, while our scrub pines eke out an existence in sandy soil, with presumably more challenges.  Could that be part of the answer?

So I will file this question with so many others: Why does the tufted titmouse have a little crest, while the similarly sized chickadee gets along fine without one?  Why doesn’t the North Atlantic Right Whale have a dorsal fin on its broad black back, while every other cetacean, from a Harbor Porpoise to a Fin Whale does? 

Perhaps these questions do not occur to you.  Perhaps your only thought regarding pines is why they need to cause such itchy eyes and agony in the spring.  In their aggregate, they release countless tons of pollen, and it is literally everywhere.  Just yesterday, on a whale watch out on Stellwagen Bank, I saw the first loopy yellow drifts of pollen- organic pollution, I explain to the passengers.  

Anyway, for me questions make good companions.  And every little answer is another handhold on the world, this wonderful world in which we live.