Pining for the past

When the game is on the line, this familiar cheer simultaneously rises from the throats of tens of thousands of screaming fans. But how many of them have any idea where the name comes from?

It’s not the exclusive property of UNC-Chapel Hill, either; the term properly applies to any state resident. Still, the odds are you couldn’t explain to an outsider what tar has to do with North Carolina.

Here’s a hint: The official state toast is, “Here’s to the Land of the Longleaf Pine!” And when the governor wants to honor an individual North Carolinian, he may make that person a member of the Order of the Longleaf Pine.

The answers to these mysteries are spelled out in Larry Earley’s book Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest (UNC Press, 2004). Earley, a former editor of Wildlife in North Carolina magazine, draws on his love of the outdoors and his gift for storytelling as he explores the significance of tar, resin, turpentine and tall-pine lumbering for our region’s history.

When the first European colonists arrived in North America, almost 100 million acres of longleaf forests stretched across the coastal plains and sandhills of the Southeast. This vast ecosystem was beautiful, diverse — and complex. The longleaf was dominant because it could live comfortably with the fires that regularly swept across the forest floor, destroying its competitors. In fact, a variety of plants and animals thrived amid this continuing cycle of fire and regrowth.

The pitch and tar that came from the longleaf forests were essential for building and maintaining wooden ships. And with the European forests long since exploited into oblivion, the seemingly limitless longleaf forests of England’s colonies gave its navies a substantial advantage in its struggle to dominate the seas.

A big part of Earley’s story concerns how the tapping of the longleaf for its tar, pitch, resin, turpentine and lumber led to its almost complete disappearance. But along the way, readers learn how North Carolina’s early economy revolved around the longleaf and the businesses that depended on it — and eventually destroyed it. Part of that story is how the barefoot workers picked up patches of tar on their feet as they went about their business, becoming the first “tar heels.”

More recently, of course, tobacco — not tar and pines — has been our state’s informal symbol. But with the end of the government’s price-support system and the continued growth of global tobacco production, our close association with this product may drop away. And though the permanent linkage of prominent state institutions with the names of Reynolds, Duke and other tobacco families might suggest that the plant’s mark will be with us forever, things just don’t seem to work that way. Most people don’t have a compelling interest in what used to be important — or what they might learn from it to enhance their understanding of our world today. And once tobacco has become just another ordinary commodity crop, our emotional ties to it may well go the way of our connection with the business of making tar and with the longleaf-pine forests that made it possible.

Thankfully, however, there’s more to this story than the fall of the forests: There’s also a newly developing “rise.” Conservation efforts are preserving some of the remaining patches of longleaf, such as the beautiful Weymouth Woods near Southern Pines. Quail hunters have found the longleaf woods to be a haven for their quarry. And some tree farmers are finding they can gain a fair return from their forests by harvesting longleaf-pine straw.

These activities alone will never bring back the full glory of the longleaf, as Earley is quick to acknowledge. But as a pragmatic conservationist, he also celebrates the possibility that these sustainable remnants may prove to be even more powerful reminders of our state’s fascinating past than either our Tar Heel nickname or the longleaf toast.

[D.G. Martin is the author of Interstate Eateries, a handbook of home-cooking restaurants near North Carolina’s interstate highways, and the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch.]

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