When early colonists first arrived in what is now the Southeastern United States, they encountered a remarkable landscape. To many, it resembled the grand wooded parks of Europe with miles upon miles of grand trees with towering canopies shading an open grassy understory with perfect visibility for hunting. Colonists believed this was a gift from God, a sign that this was a promised land for his chosen people. American naturalist-illustrator William Bartram, a Quaker, saw the hand of God at work, “a portion of universal intellect diffused in all life.” A self-trained illustrator, Bartram translated his awe and reverence for all of creation in his colorful depictions of the plant-life that filled his father’s vast botanical garden.
In the late Spring of 1773, Bartram set off from Fort Barrington up the Altamaha River near the small coastal settlement of Darien, Georgia. He was retracing the route he and his father, Royal Botanist John Bartram, took six years before when there, just a few miles from the fort, he encountered a 3-acre grove of flowering shrub-like trees that were unlike anything he had ever seen. As William Bartram rounded a bend in the river, he found those same trees in full flower. He recorded their likeness and took a few seeds and cuttings for his father’s garden. Little did he know that these specimens he named Franklinia alatamaha, after his close family friend Benjamin Franklin, would be all that remained of the species, and the 92 million-acre Longleaf pine forests that surrounded him would vanish by the time of his death.
Farming, logging, and war virtually eradicated the forest, decreasing its coverage from the estimated 92 million acres from Virginia to Florida, Georgia to the Mississippi River, down to below 3 million acres of fragmented and isolated pockets scattered throughout the Deep South. The losses were staggering but largely ignored as signs of progress. What Bartram, Andre Michaux, and their naturalist contemporaries could not understand was the true nature of the forest, how it had come to be, and how widely its destruction would affect the region for generations to come.
Long before Columbus first crossed the Atlantic, ancestors of indigenous North Americans began their careful work as stewards of the forest. For millennia, they shaped and maintained the forests with fire. Cyclical fire seasons cleared the understory of debris preventing the kind of catastrophic wildfires that would decimate all life in the region, while also aiding in the pines' reproductive cycle. They created a high pine canopy, filtering sunlight onto an open grassy savannah below. Life adapted. A complex tapestry of biodiversity evolved to rely on the fire seasons and to make their home in the various strata of the forest. The immensity of the forest benefitted these creatures. Deer and bison roamed the grassy understory, bobwhite quail nested in grassy thickets, gopher tortoises and rodents burrowed beneath the trees, and the now-endangered red-cockaded woodpecker commanded the canopy, each with a range of nearly 500 acres. Every species had its role to play, each fulfilling a valuable niche. For rare endemic species like the Franklin Tree, that role is currently unknown, but the role of the native peoples of the Southeast is clear, they were the stewards of the forest and the catalysts of renewal. As European settlers set about destroying and removing the forest, so too did they systematically destroy and remove the native keepers of the forest. As the forest's biodiversity dwindled, the tapestry unraveled.
Today, efforts are underway to restore the Longleaf forest. A collection of government forestry agencies, universities, nonprofits, and small-holders seek to link the disparate pockets of forest and restore an essential tool in fighting climate change. But restoring a forest requires more than just planting trees. Forests are like living cities. From the canopies to deep beneath the forest floor, a vast tapestry of linked biodiversity supports the forest and enables it to thrive, grow, and be resilient in the face of external pressures. A system with abundant biodiversity can survive significant shocks, but most of the creatures that call the Longleaf forest home are endangered.
To restore the forest, we must do more than plant trees. We must understand the complex web of life that makes up the forest, know the niches driving the engines of life from below ground to the treetops, and identify which creatures fulfill those roles historically, and which creatures could fill those roles today.
The story of the Longleaf pine forest's rebirth will be one of fire, justice, and the restoration of balance in a disrupted land.
“See The Forest” will be part of the “Healing the Garden” series directed and produced by Grey Gowder. The film will be a 90-minute made-for-streaming documentary shot in 4k.