It’s an old saying, and a familiar experience. “I couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” someone declares, and everyone smiles knowingly. We’ve all been there.
On the other hand, the opposite can be equally true. At first glance the pineywoods of east Texas — crowded, dim if not dark, deeply unfamiliar — can seem impenetrable: a pile of sticks leaning against a wall of green. Even the Big Thicket’s name seems off-putting. People who’ve never picked dewberries or read the journals of early Texas settlers still have a vague understanding of thickets. They’re difficult to pass through, possibly dangerous, and best avoided.
But thickets can be more than obstacles on the way to somewhere else, and the Big Thicket offers proof. Step inside the forest, and it’s easy to see the trees in a new way.
Look more closely, and enchanting details begin to emerge.
Here and there, young longleafs bide their time, developing their root systems. For periods as long as several years, they resemble clumps of grass: their buds protected beneath a bundle of needles. Should fire sweep through, the needles may burn but the bud will remain protected and virtually immune to fire.
When the root collar (a transitional zone between the roots and the trunk of a tree) becomes about an inch in diameter, the longleaf begins to grow. A single white tip called a ‘candle’ emerges from the protective sheath of needles, new needles develop, and, in time, bark begins to form.
Rapid growth allows the seedling’s growing tip to rise above potential fires, and after a year or two the bark has thickened enough to withstand most fires. No branches form during this so-called ‘bottlebrush’ stage, when all of the tree’s energy is focused on ‘up’ rather than ‘out.’
After passing through the bottlebrush stage and the aptly-named candelabra stage so obvious in my photo of dawn in the Big Thicket, the longleaf moves on to maturity.
In time, cones will fall and seeds will disperse, preparing the way for more trees. But more than fallen needles are there to receive the cones. In the Big Thicket, pine trees of various sorts coexist with everything from cacti to ferns, and any fallen cone becomes an invitation to further exploration.