The Sublime Odor of Pine by Margaret Warner Morley

The Sublime Odor of Pine by Margaret Warner Morley

THE first thing one notices upon approaching the mountains is that the Blue Ridge is wooded to the top, the beautiful Blue Ridge with all its outreaching spurs. And one later discovers that this is also true of the high mountains back of it, for the Southern Appalachian forests are not only the highest-lying of all the hardwood forests in North America, but the largest left in this once forest-covered country. Some six thousand square miles of them lie spread, a shining web of lights and colors, over the North Carolina mountains alone.

But although trees clothe the mountains here as with a garment, their boundless expanse is not oppressive, for the forest floor, unobstructed by glacial boulders and wet hollows, is easily traversed. As a rule its trees stand apart, tall, clean columns beneath which little green things and wild flowers grow, while the sun shines through the leafy roof. One reason the floors are so clean is that they are frequently swept by the fires that break out every winter either through carelessness, or else on purpose to clear the ground that fresh green may start for the cattle. In the dry season smoke clouds ascend on all sides. At night cities with their twinkling lights seem to have sprung up as by magic on the slopes, or else lines and curves of fire gird the mountain-tops. The atmospheric effect of these fires is lovely; a tender haze envelops the landscape, while the air is filled with that faint and exquisite fragrance of burning wood that one always associates with the South. The air is smoky, but how different these clouds of incense from the smoke of a city! Strong, sweet winds blow over the mountains, mingling the odor of growing things with that of the burning forest.

Such trees as fall from fire or other causes, in this ardent climate quickly resolve into their elements. If they do not burn up, they decompose, excepting the heartwood of mature pine trees that for years may lie embedded in the crumbling envelope of the outer wood, forming the fragrant "fat pine" of the South, a splinter of which kindles at the touch of a match. Heavy, translucent, and damp with resinous juices, it burns with fierce heat and fiercer flames, the smoke that ascends from it being heavy like lampblack, although it does not smell like that: it smells like the South. It is the same odor intensified that steals over the earth when the sun is on the pine trees. For here the pine is everywhere present to the eye and to the sense of smell. Of all the trees it is the one the stranger first notices, and the first thing the newcomer says is, "How bright the pine trees look," for, instead of sharing the sombre aspect of pines that grow in the North, these seem full of sunshine.

Perhaps the pine also owes its supremacy here as elsewhere to a certain atmosphere of antiquity clinging about it and unconsciously affecting the feelings of one looking at it. For we know its family to be the sole arboreal survivor in this country of the myriads of strange forms that covered the earth in past geological ages — long before there were any broadleaved trees in existence. However that may be, the ancient form of the pine gives a characteristic aspect to the scenery of the Carolina mountains, as well as characteristic fragrance to the woods, and a characteristic note in the music of the forest as the wind sweeps over it.

The noblest tree among them, the tall Pinus echinata, in Traumfest known as the " armored pine," from the large plate-like scales of its bark, stands head and shoulders above the rest of the forest, its picturesque crown of twisted limbs overtopping the other trees along the crest of the ridges.

Quite different in appearance is the Pinus Virginiana, whose spreading crown is close-dotted with little dark cones that cling fast for several years, until the tree finally looks like a Japanese decoration. This charming tree appears more mundane than the towering armored pine, whose spirit seems to be engrossed with matters of the sky. One could imagine the Pinus Virginiana laughing, but never the armored pine. It is the Pinus Virginiana that gives that delicious fragrance to roads banked with its young trees, a fragrance like that of a freshly opened tangerine orange. Besides these two, there are three or four other species of pine that blend their plumes with each other and with the foliage of the hard wood trees, and which fill the air with incense.

On the high mountains west of the Blue Ridge are yet to be found grand primeval forests of mingled pines and hardwood trees; but the trees of the Blue Ridge, though there are noble exceptions, are generally small, the forests here being sweet rather than majestic. And how sweet they are!