The Wade Tract by Jim Cox

Until the mid-1800s, America’s longleaf pine forests seemed endless as they dominated nearly 60 million acres from Virginia to Florida to Texas. The forest was building a nation, and the end was nowhere in sight. The heartwood was especially coveted because wood-rotting fungi couldn’t disfigure the light, cinnamon-yellow wood, and the tight, dense grain wrecked the jaws of even the most determined termites. But longleaf forests today cover just 3 percent of their original range, and most are comparatively young forests that have been hacked and harvested at numerous points in their careers. 

All of which makes the beauty, music and mysterious improbability of the Wade Tract Preserve and its old-growth longleaf pine even more inspiring. Hundreds of grand old trees with tall, erect postures steeple-stretch toward the sky. Others with gnarled, wrought-iron branches, flat-headed tops, and tumescent boles lean at defiant angles toward the tug of the earth like huge bonsai bowing to greet guests arriving for a ceremonial tea. Beneath the trees lies an expansive prairie-carpet filled with golden grasses and green ferns and stretching in all directions.

The music of this old-growth longleaf forest is equally direct in its appeal. The performance begins when the wind moves unimpeded through the widely spaced trees and flows across millions of thin green instruments gathered in bunches at the ends of stout branches. The long, taut needles offer up silk-slim whispers on a slight breeze, the muffled, distant hissing of young owls. When stoked by strong gusts, those same long instruments ripple with a loud, slicing drone filled with resonance and overtones, a chorus of manatees inhaling-exhaling, inhaling-exhaling. There is no other orchestra that makes such music, and it’s music crafted by one of the rarest forests in North America.

The improbability of the Wade Tract is perhaps the most difficult facet to absorb.  An individual longleaf can live for over four hundred years, holding tightly to its patch of earth until struck by lightning or felled by a storm.  A longleaf forest that has grown back in an area cut over a century ago contains only teenagers and young adults when compared to an old-growth tract, so why were the ancient trees of the Wade Tract spared from the ax?

The answers swirl amid a complex stew of culture, timing, and rare luck. The simple need for potable water led the native Apalachees to cluster their settlements around sinkhole lakes to the south, away from the expanse of pinewoods. The region’s antebellum plantations developed just in time to have their lifeblood drained by the Civil War. The Gilded Age’s wealthy industrialists rode trains south to the last stop at Thomasville and found they could pursue quail using fancy new armament. Finally, Herbert Stoddard, a young Wisconsin biologist with phenomenal acumen, lit a fire that my colleagues and I work to preserve.

This is what makes the Wade Tract special: a strange blending of the last vestiges of a decimated landscape and a cultural history peppered by fire-arm technology and fire ecology, slavery and slow transportation, tenant farms and industrial titans and, most importantly, lots and lots and lots of sheer luck.

About the Author

Jim Cox climbs trees for Tall Timbers Research Station. , which provides more information about this endeavor. When he’s not listening to the music in the pines, he crunches numbers and cranks out dry technical papers on the bird life of the Red Hills. One of his long-term goals is to see an endowed position created at Tall Timbers for the purpose of studying the fauna and flora of the Wade Tract.

This essay is excerpted and adapted from one that appeared in Between Two Rivers: Stories from the Red Hills to the Gulf, the inaugural publication of the Red Hills Writers Project.

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