By: Zachery Miller
With massive arched branches reaching out across the roadway, it is hard to miss the enduring live oaks of Wilmington’s historic district. Just as obvious are the numerous pines that shed their needles, in layers among the back yards of our region. Whether you are driving your car beneath the twisted branches or raking the masses of pine straw that have accumulated along your driveway, it is hard to ignore the strong presence of our area’s prevailing foliage.
Many tend to showcase the live oak as a nostalgic element of the quintessential southern town. When the small beach communities of Yaupon and Long Beach joined as one municipality, they chose to officially name their city Oak Island, to pay homage to this coast hugging species of hardwood. Furthermore, any Tarheel fan has the longleaf pine to thank for their favorite team’s namesake. It may have been the tar that held a brigade of Carolina troops strongfooted in battle, but it was the longleaf pine that provided the foundation necessary to motivate these men to such courage.
There is no doubt that these trees have come to represent something otherwise intangible, a feeling of pride that resonates within the heart of every North Carolinian. But if you haven’t paused to consider their impact on Southeastern NC, you might want to take notes. History reveals that it is these very trees that sparked development along the Cape Fear River from the beginning.
What made the forests of Southeastern North Carolina so appealing to both the early colonial settlers and imperial foreign powers? It all began with an extensive land management project dating back hundreds of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. The Native Americans of coastal Carolina had been clearing the underbrush for generations by scorching large sections of forests in controlled burns. This practice enabled long sight hunting in the woods and provided small tracts of open land for agriculture. The flames cleared competition among the pines and acted as an incubator for the longleaf.
When the Europeans arrived in the Carolinas, they found millions of acres overwhelmingly dominated by long leaf pines, a naturally occurring ecosystem known as the longleaf pine savannah. These beautiful forests were conveniently abandoned by their keepers, who had already succumbed to the spreading disease introduced by the first settlers. Their absence left broad, old growth tracts full of the essential resource needed to fuel a new age of globalization.
A simple observation of supply and demand paved the way for unparalleled opportunity.
Eager settlers began producing naval stores, a term given to the stock of materials necessary to build a ship. Within years, Southeastern NC was booming. Money was growing on the trees for those who had risked it all in the wilderness along the southern coast. Shipping ports were constructed on the shores of the Cape Fear River to handle the growing export of these essential materials. Brunswick in 1727 and then Wilmington in 1739. Our region was unique. Geographically speaking, it was in the right place at the right time. Ecologically, we had the biodiversity necessary for the ship building industry to take claim- this area harbored the ideal resources for every step of construction.
Wood cut from the live oak was dense and decay resistant, but more importantly, its unique growth pattern provided builders with a material ideally shaped for the curved hull of a ship. It was a no-brainer! Craftsmen would take their specifications and traverse the coastal forests finding thick oak branches to fit the unique needs of each joint. It was like piecing together a puzzle, a much warranted improvement to the inefficient steaming of straight boards.
Tar was harvested by slow roasting pine logs in a specialized kiln. This sticky, dark substance was used to coat the sail’s riggings and grease any metal fittings. The tar was then condensed further into a substance known as pitch, which was brushed onto the hull like an industrial strength Thompson’s Water Seal. Next, men would soak a length of rope in the pitch until it became saturated. This rope, known as caulk, was then pounded into the seams of the hull, completing the waterproofing process.
As more settlers found their way into coastal Carolina, the British did not want to lose their economic grip on the natural resources this land offered. Landowners found themselves at odds with the foreign powers who still claimed ownership of the timber on their land. Officers went as far as marking the best trees, claiming them for the Crown. Despite their consistent struggle for autonomy, by the 1770’s, our region’s forefathers managed to dominate the global market with tar and turpentine exports. Naval stores became the colony’s primary industry, supported for the most part by the labor of small-scale, independent farmers who chose to carve out a new life in the forests of Southeastern North Carolina. It could be said that the rest is history; however, the widespread harvest of naval store products has destroyed huge expanses of these majestic forests.
The longleaf pine held dominance in the landscape of the past, but the forests we see today consist of a variety of pine species. So, while it may seem that these living relics are still thriving, the longleaf ecosystem is in total crisis. Dr. Anthony Snider, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at UNCW, hopes to bring more awareness to the reality of the situation. The longleaf forest is currently “the most imperiled ecosystem in North Carolina!” Dr. Snider points out with a passion ignited not only by his professional perspective, but also by his love for nature. “These forests used to range from Texas to New Jersey, now less than 3% remain.”
Although we have damaged the natural beauty of our fragile host, we have fused our identity with it along the way. This unique perspective gives us the opportunity to repay the favor sacrificed by the land to which we owe our sense of place. Several area parks offer easily accessible tracts of longleaf savannah just waiting for intrigued residents to reconnect with their roots.
Carolina Beach State Park provides a great opportunity to observe a range of coastal habitats including the longleaf pine and some really impressive examples of uninhibited live oak. Currently, proactive efforts in Halyburton Park (17th and Independence), Moore’s Creek Battlefield in Pender County, and The Green Swamp Preserve in Brunswick County work to preserve and facilitate the future growth of the longleaf pine ecosystem, while Hugh MacRae Park (South College and Oleander) showcases the pines in a setting even the youngest member of the family can appreciate.