Photo by Jason Leem on Unsplash

The Secret History of Pine

I once knocked over a Billy bookcase in an Ikea store. An old woman screamed as it fell. I was being dragged around by a housemate, but he could well have been a girlfriend or a parent — I’ve been led through furniture stores by a succession of people close to me. I knew the drill: Like watching Japanese interpretative dance, it was better to endure it than protest — planning escape routes only increased the frustration.

Taking a breather from the Malms and Hemnes, I leaned against a Billy, and it toppled over without pause or warning. I managed to stay my fall, turning to see the object, double my height, miss an elderly couple and bounce down onto a Hafslo mattress, as if all it really wanted to do, like me, was sleep.

Pine is a softwood. If the bookcase had been made of oak, a hardwood, it may have coped better with my weight.

(If a bookcase falls in an empty Ikea showroom, does it make a sound?)

Pines live a long time. Unless they’re chopped down. We know this because in 1964, Donal Rusk Currey felled the oldest living tree in recorded history. At the time, Currey was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina studying climate change during the Little Ice Age, taking core samples from the ancient bristlecone pines of California’s White Mountains as part of his research. When his core sampler got stuck in one particular tree, Currey asked for permission to cut it down, despite its obvious age. Donald E. Cox, district ranger at Humboldt National Forest, granted that permission, later saying, “No one would have walked more than a hundred yards to see it.” Despite one ranger refusing to take saw to wood, the bristlecone pine was felled a few days later.

Currey took a cross-section of the tree’s trunk and counted the rings — a way, as any Boy Scout will tell you, of calculating its age, a process called dendrochronology. He determined the tree to be more than 5,000 years old, making it older than both writing and the wheel.

How must Currey have felt? A little guilty? Did he consider keeping his discovery a secret?

He published his story in in the July 1965 issue of Ecology, labeling the tree WPN-114, rather than Prometheus, as it’s now known. This colossal “oops” didn’t impair Currey’s career: He later became professor emeritus in the geography department at the University of Utah.

Pine nuts are edible. But if you eat the nuts of the Chinese white pine, you run the risk of developing “pine mouth,” a condition where you taste metal for two weeks. The FDA’s website states:

This taste…typically begins 12 to 48 hours after consuming pine nuts, and lasts on average between a few days and two weeks. It is exacerbated by consumption of any other food during this period and significantly decreases appetite and enjoyment of food. The symptoms decrease over time with no apparent adverse clinical side effects.

It’s not an allergy, but an “adverse reaction” that can’t be predicted.

Pine nuts are an important ingredient in pesto, the gastronomic equivalent of cheese sauce. But because these nuts are cooked, you don’t have to worry about suffering from robot’s mouth next time you eat penne and pesto.

I’d prefer the taste of metal to the flavor of some food. Cauliflower, for instance, and Brussels sprouts — a vegetable only ever eaten in the UK at Christmas.

There’s a pinetum 45 minutes by car from my house. (A pinetum, as you might imagine, is a plantation of pine trees.) Not just any pinetum, either. As its website states:

Bedgebury National Pinetum is home to the national collection of conifers and with over 7,500 specimens holds the largest collection on one site anywhere on the planet!

It’s Pinelandia, people!

One Saturday night, my wife and I agreed to leave early the next morning to take the kids there. The family would surely enjoy a fresh walk through the breezy morning of the new summer. And even if it rained, it’d be preferable to letting the boys YouTube all morning. Half cut on cheap wine and the children asleep, it felt like a perfect plan.

Next morning: We didn’t get out until 11. “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley,” wrote Robert Burns, and he should know, because he had nine children.

Arguments over the route notwithstanding, the journey to Bedgebury was unremarkable, and we made good time. As we turned into the country road that led to the pinetum’s parking lot, however, we saw a long queue of cars running a distance from the entry barriers.

“Shit,” I said.

My wife told me off.

“What does ‘shit’ mean?” asked a son.

Pines are popular. Especially with cyclists. We were the only car without a set of mountain bikes on the roof rack. We turned around and headed for a local reservoir. My eldest son was disappointed. I asked why, hoping it was because he appreciated the majesty of the pines. Instead, he explained there was a “sick” climbing frame in the playground (made of pine).

My youngest son didn’t care either way. He’s 18 months and only likes things beginning with the letter B. Like beech or birch.

Bedgebury Pinetum is partly managed by Kew Gardens, a collection of plants and tourists through which Americans walk and mistake for rural England. Kew, in southwest London, is also the headquarters of the National Records. You can pay £20 to discover if your great-great-grandmother was ever mentioned in Victorian censuses.

I remember visiting the U.S. equivalent and feeling disappointed that the Declaration of Independence was faded to such a degree that you couldn’t make out the text. What if the document had never existed? What if it were always faded? What if the United States is still secretly a British colony?

Bedgebury also contains a seed bank. A laudable venture, I’m sure, but I can’t help but think it will inevitably be the setting for a horror or sci-fi happening: Time travelers will return from the future for a couple of pea seeds, or some cone monster will be created from alien seeds. I don’t know.

Of course, any time travelers or monsters have to leave the house well before 11 a.m. to avoid the queuing motor traffic.

Pine facts:

  • There are around 115 species of pines.
  • Pines are the most common coniferous tree worldwide.
  • Most varieties of pine live more than 100 years. Some can survive past their 1,000th birthday.
  • Squirrels love the seeds hidden in the cones. Absolutely love them.
  • The resin that flows from injured pine bark is highly flammable and is often a contributing factor in forest fires.

I don’t have an Instagram account.

We accept that social media will only make us unhappy, but still, like you, I get masochistic pleasure from hate-checking the Facebook and Twitter feeds of dickheads I once knew.

But not Instagram.

I get no satisfaction, masochistic or not, from artfully filtered pictures of uni friends’ children or work colleagues’ holidays or celebrities in swimwear. (I lie about the last one.)

The asinine quality of 95 percent of all Insta posts can be seen in the popularity of L.A.’s “Wisdom Tree.” A star of many a tourist’s selfie, the tree was supposedly once a store-bought Christmas pine that survived a 2007 fire. Next to it sits an ammo box of writing journals, in which twentysomething idiots can leave the sort of inspirational messages you see superimposed on images of the setting sun…on Instagram.

“The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” is a song featured in Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1937). Inspired by John Fox Jr.’s 1908 novel of the same name, the song tells the story of the singer’s love for a girl named June, comparing his loneliness without her to a lonesome pine in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,

On the trail of the lonesome pine —

In the pale moonshine our hearts entwine,

Where she carved her name and I carved mine;

Oh, June, like the mountains I’m blue —

Like the pine I am lonesome for you,

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,

On the trail of the lonesome pine.

The Laurel and Hardy version features a deep bass section, sung by actor Chill Wills (what a name!) and lip-synced for laughs by Stan Laurel. In 1975, this version reached number two on the UK singles chart, championed by indie legend and Radio 1 DJ John Peel.

What’s the best pine in movie history? The one/two in Back to the Future. The early scene with the Libyan terrorists and dead Doc Brown takes place in a parking lot belonging to a mall called Twin Pines. When Marty travels back to 1955, the Delorean strikes a pine tree and his mother falls in love with him and his father punches Biff and young Doc Brown hangs off the town hall’s clock face and when Marty finally returns to 1985, the mall is now called Lone Pine Mall because that’s how time travel works.

The second-best pine tree in movie history stars in Trees, a low-budget comedy-horror from 2000 in which a park ranger investigates a number of strange deaths in a pine forest. Without spoiling the movie, it turns out that the culprit is a tree. And not just any tree: the “Great White Pine,” king of all trees.

This isn’t the only horror film to cast pine trees as the villain. In Treevenge, a short from 2008, a group of sentient trees rebel against the indignity of Christmas, using their needles as creative, and bloody, murder weapons.

Driving through Virginia with my wife, I once saw a baby brown bear cuddling its arms around a, for the purposes of this essay, pine tree at the side of the road. I’d been fiddling with the radio, amazed that, as everything in the States, increased choice didn’t necessarily lead to better quality. I tuned to a station as it began playing “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot.

“That’s amazing,” said my wife.

I nodded, thinking she meant the song choice, only to see she was pointing through the windscreen at a bearcub.

(I have checked the National Park Service official species list for the Shenandoah Valley. It’s possible that the tree was a short-leaf pine.)

Decorating wintertime evergreen trees/hoovering up dead pine needles has been a thing for centuries, predating Christ even, and he was around ages ago. There’s symbolism to a tree that stays green, an attractive refusal to age. Like Cher. Traditionally, evergreen trees were decorated during the winter solstice to celebrate the worst of winter being over — for spring, and green buds, were on their way.

The Christmas tree tradition as we know it started in Reformation Germany as an alternative to the Catholic cribs (as in the nativity, not MTV). The tradition took a while to set hold in English-speaking countries. Angry Oliver Cromwell legislated against such “heathen traditions,” and, in 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts made it a crime to celebrate Christmas in any way other than by attending a church service.

(Although, from my experience of what feels like thousands of Christmas dinners, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.)

Like dressing in black and ruling a third of the world, it took Queen Victoria to make Christmas trees fashionable. Following a tradition from the German side of the family, she was pictured in 1846 in the London Illustrated News, with Albert and kids, standing around a Buckingham Palace Christmas tree.

I’m proud of my pine bookshelves. They’ve never fallen over. I do wonder, however, if, like my CD collection, the books might be better off in storage. Who am I trying to impress? Couldn’t the space be better used?

The handful of family and friends ever likely to enter my house already know I like books. They raise their eyebrows when I talk about literature and buy me the latest New York Times Literary Fiction Book of the Year every Christmas.

(I don’t like Jonathan Franzen’s books. And don’t get me started on David Foster Wallace.)

I’ve already had a guy visit the house to pick up a table my wife was selling through eBay. He spent time looking at my pine bookshelves, making approving noises. Finally, he asked if I were a writer, the exact reaction I’d want from anyone looking at my bookshelves. I couldn’t speak, I was so happy, so it was up to my wife to confirm that, no, I wasn’t a writer, just a pseud.

Dear bookshelves: What have I become? If I were, tragically, to become single again, could I ever hope to attract another woman? Perhaps I need to take up mountain biking. I could dress in Lycra and scoot through forests that, perhaps, one day would become bookshelves belonging to thirtysomething men with something to prove, although quite what, they don’t know.

(Alternatively, I could create a Tinder profile.)

Pine trees have it easier: Their cones contain both male and female reproductive structures.

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