We had shrimp for dinner a few weeks ago. The cats thought they should have been invited.
We had shrimp for dinner a few weeks ago. The cats thought they should have been invited.
My father was born in Floyd County, up in northwest Georgia where we live now. He grew up here, and spent almost his entire life here. He roamed the fields and woods, and he learned to recognize and name most of the plants and animals of this area. He could name just about any bird from its call, and he knew the names of pretty much all the trees. In all the years I spent here, I never once heard him mention the longleaf pine (pinus palustris). We had pines in our back yard, but those were loblollies. There were some Virginia pines around, and a few white pines. The longleaf was completely unknown to me.
But back before the Europeans came to North America, the longleaf pine covered huge areas of the southeastern United Stages, stretching along the coast from Texas to Virginia, and from the coast to the foothills. There are several good sources of information about the longleaf, including one at Auburn University, and one right here next to us at Berry College. One source estimates that longleaf pine forests covered 140,000 square miles. That’s a lot of longleaf pines. Another source estimates that those forests now cover about three percent of the former range. Today, if anyone thinks about the longleaf, they usually think of it as a tree of the coastal plain. I imagine some people whose blogs I read have them around, like Florida Cracker. They may take them for granted. But not me. Not up here in the foothills, far from the coastal plains.
What made the longleaf disappear from so much of its range? Well, it was us, of course. Europeans. We used them for lumber, and we tapped them for turpentine. And when we reforested, we replaced them with faster-growing species like the loblolly. One perhaps unexpected problem for the longleaf was fire suppression. The longleaf is fire resistant, and in fact dependant on that to outcompete other trees and establish healthy stands. With periodic, fairly low-level fires sweeping through the longleaf forests, other types of trees were killed. The longleaf, in all its stages, was more able to withstand fires. So once we started suppressing all fires, both natural and man-made, one of the longleaf’s major advantages disappeared. Not too far over the border from us in Alabama there is a fairly large stand of longleaf pines at Fort McClellan. Military training there inadvertently maintained the longleaf ecosystem through accidental fires. That type of training has stopped, though, and other types of trees have begun to encroach on the longleaf forests.
For many years I never saw a longleaf pine that I recognized as such. I don’t think the idea of a longleaf pine even crossed my mind. That may explain why it took me so long to realize that I was walking through a nice stand of longleaf pines on Lavender Mountain when I took the dog for a walk. I became aware of the fact slowly, and I’m not even sure how. I had walked Zeus, my old dog, around the woods up where we live for quite a while before I realized that I was walking through a longleaf stand. They are mixed with other pines and oaks, but there are actually quite a few, and some nice, big ones.
In this picture, the large tree to the right is a longleaf pine. The shorter trees in the foreground are loblolly pines. Behind the big longleaf there are some more longleaf pines and loblollies, along with the typical chestnut oaks that form the majority of the hardwood forest on Lavender Mountain. This lot has been partially cleared and trails have been bulldozed to allow the owner and his friends to drive their off-road vehicles.
I did some reading, and the more I read, the more interested I got. I found the Berry College longleaf pine restoration project in the link above. I thought maybe they didn’t know of the stand near our house, so I contacted Martin Cipollini, who runs Berry’s project. I had suspected that Lavender Mountain was close to the most inland and upland extent of the pine’s range, and he confirmed that, although he said there is another stand somewhat further north.
Once I realized what the longleaf pine was and how it looked, I started seeing them here and there around the mountain. The longleaf has a distinctive look to the needles. Most of the other pines in this area tend to grow needles along the length of a branch up to the tip so that they look like a horse’s tail. The longleaf grows its needles in a round clump at the end of a branch. It looks like a cheerleader’s pom pom. I find it fairly hard to tell some loblollies from a longleaf under some circumstances. Their needles can be long enough to confuse me, a naïve observer. But I usually have no confusion when I actually see a longleaf. That means that if I’m not sure, it’s almost certainly not a longleaf.
There are singletons scattered around, if you know to look for them. I was a little envious to find one growing on an adjacent lot just down from us, near our property line. I almost convinced myself it is on our side of the line, but it isn’t. And then I was excited to find a big one growing on the lower slopes of our lot, surrounded by other types of pine. It’s really hard to see, and I have to convince myself occasionally that it’s really there. It’s surrounded by the weed-like Virginia pines that colonize the disturbed landscape, and a few loblollies. But it’s there. (Now I have to check again.)
These longleaf pines are remnants of the huge stands that were so characteristic of the southeastern forest. They survived the loggers and the sap collectors because they were up on steep ridges that made harvesting the trees impractical. They have remained there for many years, like isolated pools left on the beach as the tide recedes. I think it has probably been at least a century since the rest of the longleaf forests in this area were finally eliminated.
It’s an interesting tree, and different from the other pines of this area. Most pines grow fairly quickly from seedlings, and from the beginning they have a shape not too unlike their mature form. But the longleaf grows slowly, especially at first, and in three distinct stages. The first stage is called the grass stage. In this stage, it is a clump of needles at ground level that looks more like ornamental grass than a tree. Apparently this stage can last up to seven years. At some point, depending on the growing conditions, it initiates upward growth. The trunk will grow, pushing a pom-pom of needles upward with no lateral branches. I have seen trees in this stage up to around six feet tall. This stage is called the bottlebrush stage. It doesn’t usually last as long as the grass stage, but I have seen some that don’t seem to have changed for several years.
There are at least two longleaf pines in the bottlebrush stage in this photo. There is one in the background that looks like it might be just starting to branch out. They are quite distinctive, and unlike other pines at this stage of their growth.
A tree in the bottlebrush stage continues to grow comparatively quickly for a few years, eventually sprouting branches and growing taller. It takes the longleaf about 30 years to produce fertile seeds and a tree can live 300 years. There are some reports of trees up to 120 feet tall. None of ours are anywhere near that big. I have no idea how old they are.
I have found a few grass stage longleaf pines on the slopes and in the woods not far from our house. I have also seen some grass stage and adult trees destroyed by off-roaders and by companies contracted to keep powerline rights of way clear of trees. I have watched a couple of large trees slowly decline and die, I assume as a result of the large gashes on their sides caused by off-roaders scraping by them. So when I found several grass-stage trees in areas where I knew they could not survive, I dug them up and brought them home. Unfortunately, it turns out that the grass stage tree, although not tall, can have a deep taproot. Because of the areas where I found them, it wasn’t possible to excavate very deeply, and I ended up unable to get much of the taproot. I took five home. Three died fairly quickly. One survived a couple of years and then died. One has lived. It’s overshadowed by the Virginia pines that infest this area, but I have thinned some of their limbs and the little longleaf actually seems to be doing pretty well. It has continued to sprout new needles and get larger. In fact, it is just starting its development into the bottlebrush stage.
I might be optimistic, but I think it’s starting to show a little trunk under there.
People who live in areas with healthy longleaf forests might wonder why they seem so fascinating to me. But they are rare up here now, and I get some satisfaction from helping at least one little longleaf baby along its journey in life.
Back in 1979 I decided to get a dog, so my friends who lived near Atlanta took me into town to the county animal shelter. I ended up with a dog that the card on the pen said was a dalmation named Sugar. Wrong on both counts. She looked dalmationish, but her head was shaped wrong, her ears were too long, and her spots were too faint. And there was no way I was going to have a dog named Sugar. It doesn’t pass the dog-calling test: Imagine yourself shouting the name at the top of your lungs. SUGARRRRRR!! Nope, not me. She ended up Jesse, and she was a great dog.
Now we have a dog named Zeke, of uncertain lineage. When he first showed up near our house, he “belonged” to our neighbors, but he always looked longingly at me when I took Zeus for a walk. We didn’t need another dog, and we were tired of finding homes for all the dogs that were dumped near our house. But we eventually gave in and he took up residence with us until we could find a good owner for him. He was friendly, but completely uneducated. Once when I took him with me to meet Leah for lunch, he nosed the back window of the truck open, jumped out and took off just like he knew where he was going, with no apparent intention of coming back.
We took him to the vet and had him vaccinated, neutered and tagged, and then we advertised for someone to adopt him. One day someone answered the ad. I told them not to let him off the leash when they got home because he would run away. They assured me they would keep him restrained. So they drove off, and Leah and I took a two-week vacation at Yellowstone. When we got back, we had a call from our vet, who had been called by someone who found Zeke roaming aimlessly. Whoever found him had called the number on the rabies tag. We took that as a sign, so Zeke became ours.
He’s 90 pounds, so he outweighs Jesse by about 35 or 40 pounds. His head is larger and his ears are shorter. I could fold Jesse’s ears over her eyes, but Zeke’s ears don’t reach that far. Jesse was black and white, and Zeke is brown and white. The only real similarity to Jesse’s physical appearance is that his spots are faint.
But they are very similar in some ways. For one, Jesse was a wanderer, kind of like Zeke. I used to take Jesse backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. She would take off up the trail and run around me in a kind of electron-like fuzzy orbit, always out of sight but always in contact. Zeke also takes off, but apparently his energy is great enough to break the bond, because sometimes he doesn’t come back right away. If you saw either one of them running around in a field of tall grass, you would immediately think “birddog”.
There is one more trait that they share. They both kill possums. Every time Jesse saw a possum she immediately ran to it and started biting it. She could not be restrained. Same with Zeke. A couple of nights ago when I took him for his last walk of the evening, he got away from me and ran into the garage. He dived under the little stoop we have at the laundry-room door, where Leah has a cat hotel, and there was a loud scuffle. It was Zeke attacking a possum. The possum went limp and I finally got Zeke out. The possum was bleeding at least a little, but he was gone the next time I looked in the garage. I don’t know whether he was mortally injured. In any event, I think he figured out that the cat beds, although comfortable, were not safe enough for possums.
It’s no surprise that we have had a lot of possums around the house. We live in the country and Leah puts our catfood for the outdoor cats. That’s an almost perfect way to attract wildlife. We have probably trapped eight or ten possums and a few raccoons. We take them down into Texas Valley and release them near a nice stream. I don’t know whether they survive, but they have a better chance there than they do at our house. At least as long as Zeke is around.
This is not an unusual pose for Sylvester. When he’s on our bed — and if he’s inside he’s pretty much on our bed — he does not like to be disturbed.
Another view. Still not disturbed.
If Mark keeps taking pictures, he will wake Sylvester up.
He was not happy*, and not quite awake.
* (Added by Mark) I cannot actually determine when a cat is happy. I don’t know the signs. Leah might be able to tell. I assume Sylvester is happy when he brings us a dead animal.
There are some really nice views from up on the mountain, but not all the views are so great. The best place to see the furthest is the end of the road that goes past our house. But that also happens to be the place where the power lines cross the mountain.
This was taken in the morning, while fog was still covering the Coosa River. The fog covering the river is visible on the left just below the horizon, and to the right of the mountain behind the suspension towers. You can also see Plant Hammond and a little of its stack plume on the right, and a paper mill a little upriver, which is spewing quite a plume of steam right behind the tower.
The power lines start on the other side of the mountain in Texas Valley at the Rocky Mountain Pump Storage Facility, which is owned and operated by Georgia Power and Oglethorpe Power. The valley is unusual in that it is nearly a completely enclosed pocket with just a small outlet, and with a mountain (Rocky Mountain) located in the center. It’s so unusual that it’s easily recognizable from airliner altitude. The upper storage part of the pump-storage facility is on top of the mountain. There are two or three lakes down in the valley that also store water.
A pump-storage powerplant operates by impounding water at a relatively low elevation. During off-peak times, when the demand for power is low, electric power is used to pump water uphill to a storage impoundment at a higher elevation, in this case, on the top of Rocky Mountain. Then, when there is a higher demand for power, the water runs down through generators and ends up back in the lower reservoirs. The laws of physics mean that a pump-storage power plant is a net consumer of energy. In other words, it uses more electrical energy than it produces. It only makes economic sense because the power companies can charge more for the power it produces during peak demand times than it costs for the power it consumes during off-peak times.
Three power generation facilities are visible from just behind where I was standing to take this picture. As I mentioned, you can see Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond from this point. On a clear day you can also see Georgia Power’s Plant Bowen, which is on the Etowah River. The Etowah flows to Rome where it joins with the Oostanaula River to form the Coosa. Both of those power plants are coal-fired. Back in 2006 a report by the Environmental Integrity Project said that Plant Bowen led the country in sulfur emissions from power plants. Bowen has a huge generating capacity. It’s rated at over 3000 MW. Hammond is relatively small at only 800 MW. The Rocky Mountain facility is rated at 215 MW, which is smaller than any coal-fired plant, although quite respectable by hydroelectric standards. I guess that’s because of the greater head, or difference between the upper water level and the lower water level. Of course we have to pay to put virtually all that water up on top of Rocky Mountain, while Mother Nature puts the water behind the dams for free. Both Hammond and Bowen produce pollutants in the form of sulfur compounds and particulates, both of which are harmful in their own ways. Rocky Mountain doesn’t directly produce much of any pollutants. All of its pollutants are emitted by other power plants, probably including both Hammond and Bowen.
There’s no free ride.