I don’t mean the ones down south that the sun didn’t shine in (as per the song); I mean the ones that used to grow on the farm where I was raised. The old story was that the farm was covered with big pine trees before it was “wrested from the wilderness” about the time of the Uncivil War. Since white pine is one of the climax species in woodland progression around here, I’d always assumed that was what had covered the farm. Some eventual remodeling of the old timber frame farm house, built at that time, indicated that it was southern yellow pine instead. To be specific, it was Virginia Pine and Shortleaf Pine.
The pines on our farm mostly sprouted after 1937, for that was the year that my father mowed the entire farm with old Duke, the strawberry roan, and a one horse mower. The only part he didn’t mow were a few sections of steep ground covered with young hardwoods. He was twelve that year, and Granddad spent most of that time working away in the oilfields. For better or worse, it was the last time that much of that land would be mowed. It was the in the depths of the depression and I suppose Dad’s time was required for more pressing matters after that.
While white pine may be a climax species in this area, Virginia Pine is one of the predominant pioneer species, quickly occupying any sites that would be too poor for some of the better hardwoods to gain a foothold. Most of the sloping land of the little hill farm met that description, having been the victim of the over-grazing and the hill-side plow of the previous owners. And so, the seeds blew in from the neighbor’s places, and what pines already grew there, and many acres were soon green year ‘round. A few years later, they actually cut a bunch of the straggly pines, tromped them down into the cattle racks of the truck, mashed tighter than sardines, hauled them to Baltimore and sold them to a Christmas tree lot there. Before long, though, the pines towered above them, too large for such uses. By the time I’d reached my prime teenage woods-running age, 35 years later, the pines stood tall, some easily 60 feet to the top clump of needles.
I loved the oak woods for its squirrel hunting, but there was something peaceful, almost sacred, about the pine woods. I had two favorite spots in the pines. One was the abandoned county road that lay on the western slope of the highest ridge on the farm. I shot my first deer there, and several after it. The other was the hillside below an ancient row of York Imperial apple trees that lined the brow of the hill where “the peach orchard” was located (only a hayfield by that time).
The latter was a stopping-off point on many of my evening squirrel hunts back then. With supper sometimes already in my hunting pouch, I would slip into the sloping pine woods and sit against the base of a larger tree. The ground there was soft, from the heavy covering of pine needles, and the scent of pine was in the air. As often as not, I’d close my eyes and listen to the breeze whispering through the pine limbs far above me. Sometimes, I could feel the tree swaying against my back.
You’d think that pine forests would be silent places, since they’re often mostly devoid of wildlife, but they aren’t silent at all. Besides the birds and occasional squirrels that such places hold, the pines themselves are a talkative bunch. The breeze moves the pines, of course, and besides the whisper of the breeze itself, the limbs and trunks often rub and imitate other sounds. I’ve heard what sounded like muffled conversations between the trees in a gentle breeze, or a cat meowing, plus the sound of barking dogs in the distance, or far away goose music. At times, I’d hear what sounded like a car engine revving in the distance, only to discover that the sound was coming from directly above me. A heavier breeze could make the trees sound like the shouts of men and the screams of women, and the sound of hammering construction crews and jack-hammers on the highway. I swear I’ve heard the sound of a cutter-bar from someone mowing hay in the treetops! Stiff winds were dangerous in the pines, for then you heard the crashing together of warring tree limbs, the sound of falling limbs and even the occasional falling tree. Those were times to avoid the piney woods.
Generally, though, the evenings were peaceful in the pine woods. As I listened to its sounds, I could look through the trees and barely make out our cattle in the distance heading for the barn, where my father would give them fresh hay for the night. Occasionally, the breeze would bring not only the sound of their lowing, but also his voice, calling them to supper. I could make out the smoke curling from the stove-pipe and if it was nearly dark, I’d see the back porch light wink on, to stay lit until the last member of the house was home. That was usually my cue to remove myself from the company of my piney friends and head for the house and the company of my family. © 2014