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Discovery Magazine 7/1/2000

Born of Fire

by  Trevor Major, M.Sc., M.A.

As you travel through the southeastern United States today, you might be impressed by the dense forests of beech, pine, magnolia, and oak trees. But it wasn’t always like this. Three hundred years ago, the coastal plains were dominated by one tree- the longleaf pine. That might sound kind of boring, but the longleaf pine was part of a special community (or “ecosystem”) that included a rich variety of plants and animals. At one time, this community covered 60 million acres in a huge arc from Virginia in the east to Texas in the west. Today, only three million acres remain.

No other tree does as well as the longleaf pine in the dry, infertile, sandy soils that can be found along these coastal plains. A mature tree can reach a height of 150 feet, and live 500 years. It forms a long, straight trunk with hardly any branches. This has made the longleaf pine a popular tree in the lumber industry.

The longleaf pine is in such demand that forestry companies now are learning to recreate the natural conditions in which it thrives. At the same time, scientists are trying to preserve and expand what is left so that we can continue to enjoy this unique ecosystem.

A key ingredient of a healthy longleaf community is fire. Yes, that’s right; the longleaf ecosystem must burn to survive. This is because the grasses and longleaf pine seedlings need plenty of sunlight, and regular fires remove the shade-producing plants.

In nature, the fires are started by lightning strikes, which ignite the litter of dead crass and pine needles. This litter burns well, but the fire is not very intense and stays low to the ground. After the fire, the native grasses will sprout back from the deep roots. The ashes left behind will enrich the soil, and encourage new growth. The mature longleaf pines, with their high branches and thick bark, are not affected. Even the young trees survive, because their long needles protect the growing tip of the seedling. Other plants, if they are not designed to cope with fire, will die.

The story of fire and the longleaf pine reminds me of what the apostle Paul said about his own personal suffering. “I take pleasure,” he said, “in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecution, in distress for Christ’s sake.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Just as fires can help the longleaf ecosystem, so the struggles of life can help our faith grow strong and healthy. But like the plants designed for fire, we must prepare for the trials and tribulations that came our way.



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