COLUMN: The white pine falls

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. You’ll notice that it is based, in part, on a post I wrote here last week.

The white pine falls
By Aaron J. Brown

Sometime in March the ice usually lifted off the untouched rivers and lakes north of the big man hills. The water tasted of iron, flowing north to the Hudson under the big shoulders of a white pine forest so old nothing living beneath the canopy could remember anything other than the pines, the big man hills and the water that tasted of iron. Different kinds of men discovered the place this way. Each wave of people arrived hungrier than the last. The trees were fat. The water tasted of iron for a reason the men knew and the animals feared. What happened was neither good nor bad so much as it was always going to happen, just like the ice receding every March.

A story in Jack Lynch’s history column a couple years ago re-entered my mind just last week. A speaker at a historical society dinner some 70 years ago or so described an image he saw as the 19th century faded into the 20th. He had no camera. What he saw no longer exists and will never be recreated. This man ascended to the top of the Laurentian Divide, the rigid spine of the Mesabi Iron Range, and looked over a forest of hulking, ancient white pine. These trees were so tall that the ground below rested in permanent night. The dark green sea of needles ebbed and flowed like an ocean just before a storm. Within a quarter century this forest would be gone, and while much of this area remains forested, these white pines will never return in their previous size or number.

When we first considered building our current house in the woods of Itasca County, due north of Calumet, what struck me about the site was a tall white pine standing along the property line. The forests around northern Minnesota’s Iron Range region once teemed with some of the largest white pine in North America, a fact that literally put the place on the map as loggers, then miners, then tourists poured in from places with smaller trees. The biggest white pines were harvested away, building up many late 19th, early 20th century homes in Chicago and other Great Lakes cities. A combination of disease and habitat now limits the growth of most white pines from ever reaching the species’ historic heights. But here on our land, a really big, pretty white pine towered above the collection of balsam, basswood, poplar, maple and other common local foliage. For me this was one of the signs that this was the right place for us.

Well, we cleared the scrubby growth up to the edge of this white pine, built our house and went about the business of raising our three boys in its shadows. We started to notice the top of the tree die off a couple years ago and then the birds starting picking it apart from top to bottom this summer. As more branches began drying up and falling off we knew that the tree was dead and would be a risk to fall on our house.

Last week a tree service came and cut down the tree. I counted the rings later and it appears as though the tree was about 70 years old, a child of the big white pines. I loved this tree. I didn’t want it to go, but it had to go. I had them cut four rounds out of the only marginally usable wood left on the tree. I’m going to make them into clocks, because lately I’ve been contemplating the steady passage of time. You can’t stop the ice from coming or going here in northern Minnesota, nor can you change human nature or the life cycle of a tree. You must simply live the best life possible under the shadows of mighty forces.

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer, radio commentator and community college instructor. Read more at or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

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