The Year of the Fire

The year is up; the cycle finished. We burned the longleaf pine in February 2017. I have documented the changes over the year from what looked like a charred and dead mess, to a verdant summer bursting with life, to winter waiting the next growing season.

I have included all the pictures at the end except the first one above. Click on the picture if you want to read more. It is easier to see them in relation to each other if they are stacked. The pictures tell most of the story, but let me add a little background beyond what you can see.

Longleaf pine ecosystems were dominant on SE coastal plains for at least 10,000 years and precursors go back much longer. Scientist think that the original longleaf range was the coastal plain that extended dozens or hundreds of miles into what it now the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea when sea levels were lower during the ice ages.

Important to remember that a forest is more than the trees. The wonder of the longleaf ecology is the diversity of plant and animal life, not only the trees. A longleaf pine forest is more correctly characterized as a pine savanna, a grassland with trees. Grasslands tend to dominate where rainfall is insufficient for trees to dominate. There is more than enough rain in southeastern North America to support dense forests. The reason such forests did not dominate was fire that burned through the landscape every 2-5 years. These fires were caused by lightning and then set by Native Americans. Fire kept the forest open, allowing light to penetrate and forbs and grasses to grow. Longleaf pine is a dependent ecology, with its profusion of grass and wildflowers and will not thrive when fire excluded.

The longleaf pine trees themselves fire to compete. Longleaf sends down a deep taproot and grows down before it grows up. This makes longleaf pine very resilient to drought, but it also means that species the grow faster toward the sun will shade them out. Fire tips the balance toward longleaf.

It might be useful to use an analogy of a top, a keystone predator to describe fire. Ecologists know, and even ordinary people can observe it in all the deer destroying their gardens, that if we remove the keystone predator, soon the balance is lost. Other species, not longer kept in check proliferate eventually enough to destroy the environment on which they depend. Aldo Leopold describe it more evocatively in his famous essay “Think Like a Mountain.” We can understand it in a homelier wisdom, “when the cat’s away, the mice will play.” Modern humans often removed fire and things got out of hand.
Let me finish by explaining that I try to see my land holistically.  A part is given over to longleaf and the fire regime, but I also have a lot of deep shade hardwoods near the streams that we protect from fire as much as I can. I love my longleaf forests and my groves of beech, maple and oak. It is great to be able to walk between them. The key to joy in ecology is diversity, lots of variety mixed and matched. I am grateful for those things that love fire and for those that do not.

Technical note – the trees were four years (four growing seasons) in the ground when we did the first burn, in the pictures. The site was prepared with fire in 2012, before being planted with longleaf. The longleaf are northern progeny from North Carolina, north of the Neuse River