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1 august 2016

In our front yard there's a loblolly pine tree, exactly as old as me but about ten times as tall. So even before reading Laura Mason's Pine I knew that pines are not true evergreens. They grow new leaves before dropping the old; in that they're similar to Southern hardwood trees like magnolia and live oak. The loblolly dumps great heaps of "pine straw" onto the front garden, making an ideal mulch.

Pine straw grows in tufts from nodes near the ends of branches, as opposed to fir and spruce needles which grow individually all over branches. This botanical distinction is elegant and memorable. But as Mason points out, lumber from all these trees is so similar for practical purposes that it is marketed simply as "SPF," Spruce-Pine-Fir. When wood becomes commodity, botanical nuances disappear. In the process, quite different species trees blend together in the popular imagination.

As with most taxonomy, of course, folk groupings straddle scientific boundaries uneasily, and scientific groupings keep getting reshaped according to new evidence. Part of Mason's project is to carve the botanical pine tree out of the milieus where it shares names or uses with other species, while acknowledging the many (and non-exclusive) functions and meanings that pines and their lumber have taken on.

Pines can live in extremes of heat and cold, but need seasons, so they are not suited to the tropics. As a result they are native only to their original hemisphere, the northern, though they have been widely planted in all kinds of places in the southern. Mason mentions monterey pine, which has a very restricted native range in coastal California and is nearly gone in the wild – but which has been planted in endless commercial forests in Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and South Africa, often spreading from them to form invasive woodlands.

Much of Mason's work is taken up with chronicling the wide range of ingenious uses that people have come up with for pine and its derivatives. If pine lumber is a generic commodity, many other parts of the pine have very specific applications. All pine seeds are edible, but only a few species are truly culinary, and fewer still yield a commercial crop. In many, the seed is too small for the shell to be worth cracking; this includes our loblolly, unfortunately, which produces tiny pine-nut shells trailed by wings not unlike those of maple seeds.

Oils, solvents, tars, and resins are nearly as important as lumber. All pines produce resin, and all pine resin is flammable. But again, different species produce chemically distinct resins that have different uses. Refined into "pitch," pine resin became the "naval stores" that were the basic infrastructure of the age of sail. Even earlier, pine pitch was the basic sealant and cleanser of the classical commodity trade. Wine jars coated with pitch imparted a distinctive flavor to Greek wine, while disinfecting it. Modern retsina contains pine additives because the taste has persisted long after the practical need for pitch has gone away. And of course craft brewers try to find hops that give beer Pine-Sol flavor. But that's just a matter of hops sharing aromatics with pine. For that matter, Pine-Sol isn't made with pine resin, but with synthetic compounds that emulate its smell.

Pine was also the basic stuff of lighting in pre-modern communities that had access to the trees. Pines provided firewood, splits and spills and kindling and matchwood, all resinously flammable (and all threatening to burn down homes made of pine lumber). Chinese artists valued ink made of compressed pine soot. Glues and varnishes and paints include pine resin, often in the form of refined turpentine. Pine has medicinal applications: in pastes for veterinary use but also in pine tar soap for human dandruff. If you take it internally, it's poisonous, which of course never stopped any early modern savant from recommending turpentine for catarrhs and quinsies and whatever the hell.

Mason is not American, so I will overlook her overlooking the uses of pine products in baseball: the rosin bag that pitchers handle to get a better grip on the ball, and the pine tar that coats bats for the same reason (and sometimes brings on a George Brett tantrum). She does mention "riding the pine" as a metonym for never getting into the starting lineup.

Mason is wonderful on pines in art and poetry. The greatest pine art comes from China, where the vague and changeable outlines of the trees have a classic appeal. I could think only of a couple of texts that don't appear in her examples, which range from Chinese poetry to Emerson to Robert Service. There's Stuart Gorrell's lyric to Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind":

Georgia, Georgia
A song of you
Comes as sweet and clear
As moonlight through the pines.
And Eddie DeLange's for "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans":
I miss the moss covered vines, the tall sugar pines
Where mockin' birds used to sing
And I'd like to see that lazy Mississippi hurrying into spring.
Mason points out that pines may not need much help from songwriters, because they have a music of their own. I like to hear it in the winter when we can open our windows and sleep in the breeze.

Mason, Laura. Pine. London: Reaktion, 2013.