Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), American transcendentalist, nature writer, ecologist, and mystic encountered pines daily in the woods of Massachusetts. In these excerpts, Thoreau describes some of thoughts and observations on pines.
Thoreau uses the white pines he finds in the Walden woods in the construction of his cabin. Pines, as the reader of Walden will discover, have many uses, of which stout pine timbers are but one:
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it. It was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine woods, through which I looked out on the pond, and a small open field in the woods where pines and hickories were springing up. (Walden, “Economy”)
In Thoreau’s last manuscript Wild Fruits, left unpublished at his death of tuberculosis at forty-four years old, he considered the lives and life cycles of pines:
White-pine cones begin to open September ninth.
September 9, 1857. Afternoon to the Hill for white-pine cones. Very few trees have any, and they are of course at the tops. I can manage only small trees fifteen or twenty feet high, climbing till I can reach the dangling green pickle-like fruit with my right hand while I hold to the main stem with my left (but I am in a pickle when I get one). The cones are now all flowing with pitch and my hands are soon so covered with it that I cannot easily cast down my booty when I would, it sticks to my finger so; and when I get down at last and have picked them up, I cannot touch my basket with such hands, but carry it on my arm, nor can I pick up my coat which I have taken off, unless with my teeth, or else I kick it up and catch it on my arm. Thus I go from tree to tree rubbing my hands from time to time in brooks and mud holes in the hope of finding something that will remove pitch, as grease does, but in vain. It is the stickiest work I ever did, yet I stick to it. I do not see how the squirrels that gnaw them off and then open them scale by scale keep their paws and whiskers clean. They must possess some remedy for pitch that we know nothing of, for they can touch it and not be defiled. What would I not give for their recipe? How fast I could collect cones if I could only contract with a family of squirrels to cut them off for me – for what if I had a pair of shears eighty feet long, and derrick [crane] to wield them with! They are far more effectually protected than the chestnut by its burr.
Some are already brown and dry partly open, but these commonly have hollow seeds and are worm-eaten.
These cones collected in my chamber have a strong spiritous scent, almost rummy or like molasses hogshead [cask], which would probably be agreeable to some.
How little observed are the fruits which we do not use! How few attend to the ripening and dispersion of the white-pine seed! (Wild Fruits)
Thoreau inhabits the pine in these passages physically in his pine board house, but also bodily through sensation. He inhales the scent of pine as he eats his “dinner of bread and butter” with hands “covered with a thick coat of pitch” “amid the green pine boughs which [he] had cut off.” To “be in his senses,” as he writes in “Walking,” to observe the pine, to feel the pitch on his hands–its stickiness, its tenacity–to smell its “spiritous scent,” to experience the pine is to know the pine:
Before I had done I was more the friend than the foe of the pine tree, though I had cut down some of them, having become better acquainted with it. (Walden, “Economy”)
Others have also taken their decisions to cut pines seriously. See Aldo Leopold’s “Axe in Hand” from A Sand County Almanac and “On Taking Down a White Pine” by Sandy Stott, Thoreau Farm.
Author: Tina Gianquitto (with a lot of help from Thoreau)