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All of us who have lived a long time in one place and come to love it have our peculiar reasons for our love. We New Englanders have a reputation for our passion of place that is often represented by a handful of archetypal symbols like the White Mountains, the Prudential Center, Mount Desert Island, and Fenway Park. But for me, the thing that best symbolizes my love for New England is the Eastern white pine.

It is a wonderful and amazing tree to which we may apply one of Emerson’s ideas. He wrote that if the stars shone for just one night in our lives, then we would see them in their true brilliance and beauty. Suppose there were no white pines, and then one morning we awoke to find them standing all around our houses. What would we think?

The white pine, or Pinus strobus as it is taxonomically known, is wonderful enough in raw fact. It grows from 80 to 100 feet tall. The tallest one in Massachusetts, with a girth of 10 feet and a spread of 40 feet, towers a full 160 feet above the Mohawk Trail.

The white pine lives a long time too. It reaches full maturity at 150 to 200 years. The oldest reliably dated living one has graced Syracuse, N.Y., for 458 years now. It was already a large sapling when the English tried to start a settlement in Roanoke, and it was a century old when John Evelyn wrote ‘Sylva.’ The white pine’s needles have five times more vitamin C by weight than lemons. Its cambium is edible.

The white pine’s history is bound up with human history, more so in New England than almost anywhere else. Long before the Pilgrims came, the white pine was revered by the Iroquois nations as a symbol of their “Great Peace” treaty. (Today the white pine represents recovery to the white man, because of its evergreen nature and ability to survive the loss of its branches.)

After the discovery of the New World, Great Britain sent special ships here to fetch entire trunks back to use as masts in their empire-sustaining navy. White pine lumber nourished a young United States, resulting in a denuding of New England that we moderns in our forested suburbs can scarcely imagine.

The Eastern white pine is the state tree of Michigan and Maine, and the provincial tree of Ontario. It’s blossom (yes, it is a flowering tree, if one looks carefully) is the state flower of Maine. It is lately naturalizing in Eastern Europe, where it is farmed. That’s one magnificent exotic, and a far cry from the bugs and weeds we normally associate with invasive species.

All this would be merely interesting if not for the impression the white pine makes upon our imaginations.

Unlike most conifers, its boughs turn up at their extremities as if in praise of the sun, with its mighty trunk enshrouded in soft, misnamed needles. It is a hulking, massive tree that each spring scatters its microscopic progeny by the billions to paint our cars, front porches and waterways yellow. In the summer sun it assumes a pale, almost Caribbean hue, but on a winter’s night it shows steely dark against the purple sky.

Our local horizons are defined by phalanxes of white pines, looking in silhouette like hybrids of Viking warriors and Maurice Sendak characters. During an ice storm, their dismemberment sounds like small arms fire in the forest, but there is no silence to compare with the hush of a soft breeze among their boughs.

This is a tree with a quietly insistent personality. Though we may be unmindful of it in our workaday routines, the effect of its presence yet seeps into us. It is one of those influences which, when we pause to consider, we realize has much to do with our state of mind and how we feel. It informs our aesthetic.

If so, then how much more will the Eastern white pine effect its good office when we are mindful of it. Driving to work, standing at the edge of the soccer field, crossing the supermarket parking lot, it is always and everywhere before our eyes, instilling the message to our hearts that we are here in New England, sharing this land with all of nature’s citizenry, and rubbing shoulders with royalty.

Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife. He has three adult children. Chris welcomes reader feedback at cmills@gis.net.

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