If a tree could define my home valley of the St. Croix River and the town of Stillwater, Minnesota, the eastern white pine would be the species of choice. Their plentiful wood brought men from every part of the world to vast logging camps. Towns rose along the river and the St. Croix itself served the logging industry as a cheap method of transport. Once cut and branded with the marks of logging companies, the former trees-now-logs were sent floating down to markets beyond Minnesota’s borders by way of the Mississippi River. Moving logs was difficult and logjams were common. When the logs became stuck, they were prodded and pulled apart by men and horses. Many men were crushed or killed while trying to untangle a logjam. I remember this when I see the sombre expressions on the faces of loggers posing for photos on platforms of jutting logs. Their beards reveal a determined set to the jaw, gazes laden with a preoccupation that rivets me in place. Could the men ever feel the shifting of logs as they waited for the photograph to be taken? Did they wonder if the trees were rumbling to life underneath them?
It feels impossible now not to wonder what it must have been like to work in the sawmills along the river or to fell the giant trees. I press my face to their bark and imagine the smell of a St. Croix sawmill, permeated with the pungent needled scent of white pine resin bleeding out like honey from fresh trunks. How the sawdust must have cascaded like flakes of golden leaf, clinging to beards and clothes and absorbing into the lungs until the men were part of the forest, too. The shine of fresh white pine boards would have rivaled the spark of the sunlight off the river’s ripples in gentle wind. It must have been beautiful, in its way. Sawmills were a sign of progress in their time, cutting heartwood to pieces, and who could blame those men for dreaming? Many of them knew what it felt like to start over and grow again in new soil as immigrants, and the trees would surely rise again after the saws.
An abandoned sawmill to the north of my home nestles under a thick canopy of trees. Originally built in 1847 by the Mower family of Arcola as the logging industry of the St. Croix began to flourish, its windows now wink in broken shards, one red shutter clinging to its frame, the others stripped bare by sun and rain. Once full of life and pine logs, the original building was kept up for a while after the mill closed in the early 1900s before falling into disrepair. In the mid-1930s, Dr. Henry Van Meier and his wife Katherine stumbled upon the property while hunting ferns and decided to purchase the property’s 50 plus acres of land, repurposing it into a summer house used until Dr. Van Meier’s death in 1979. Arcola Mills is a historic site and the main house is still maintained, but the former sawmill building has since forgotten what it means to have someone enter through the front door.
Arcola was once the name of a small town, too, consisting of the Mower homestead and the homes of a few mill employees along with several shops. Although a proper town was platted for the area, it never came to be – essentially turning Arcola into a ghost town. Yet the chimney of limestone blocks remembers the bustle of mill life, hewn from cliffs as trees were cut from the valley. Years of river winters and water turned to prying ice in cold have split the plank siding, ripping mesh screens ragged. Cottonwoods and oaks embrace the ruins and a branch catches the shingles, pulling them closer to examine. The trees have become the main neighbours of the mill.
Now, white pines dot the landscape like ribs in a brighter sea of green. Oaks and maples dominate the forest, but the largest white pines, many as old as the Arcola High Bridge, have stood for a century on the edges of cliffs whose height and challenging terrain must have deterred loggers. I wonder how big the white pines could have become if the axes and saws had never seen the river’s bounty. But chances are if the loggers hadn’t been here first, I wouldn’t be able to look out at the valley and wonder.
One photo of the loggers is memorialised on the side of a building in downtown Stillwater. It features three men, sitting on the logs or leaning against them. Their faces appear taut and indiscernible. One man rests his hand on his knee in a gesture of leisure. The work they did was hard, their lives short, but their efforts helped build Stillwater into a thriving town. It seems oddly appropriate to commemorate them at a busy intersection. The mural encloses space around a gift shop, forming a collision between commemoration and commercialisation – the same collision that embodies this river and its history. The mundanity of the past seems theatrical in the present, especially when viewing the lush forests that cover the cliffs and banks of the St. Croix today. The town still celebrates and preserves its history and heritage. There’s even a ‘Lumberjack Days’ festival each year.
Maybe their approachability was their downfall. Out of the approximately 5.4 million acres included in the valley, white and Norway pines covered at least 70% of the land prior to the logging industry’s rapacious appetite.
The felling of a tree like the white pine must have been an exercise in fortitude, and I think it is that spirit the festivals celebrating lumberjacks are trying to honour. Wood from a white pine has always been desirable for building materials and fuel, so no excuse was necessary to legitimise their harvest. They were also easier to fell than other giants, like sequoias, so one man could bring an entire white pine down on his own. It’s also a companionable species, making pleasant company during long months of work. Maybe their approachability was their downfall. Out of the approximately 5.4 million acres included in the valley, white and Norway pines covered at least 70% of the land prior to the logging industry’s rapacious appetite.
Back then, the riverway would have been evergreen regardless of season. Now oaks and maples shed their burnished skins with the onset of fall, and winter’s forest is grey punctuated by the green exclamation points of white pines. They tend to cluster as though strength can be found in their numbers, but this just calls the human eye to their presence. Over a century ago, visibility would have been a death sentence. Today, it’s a sign of survival.
The St. Croix’s 1968 designation as one of the first eight National Wild and Scenic Riverways placed the waters and the pines under the protection of the National Park Service, joining myriad other national parks with guidelines designed to preserve and record their histories. I’ve yet to see a white pine slice memorialised by the river, but there is a visible monument to their endurance if you know where to look.
The buttresses of the Arcola High Bridge are all original, great white pine pilings driven deep into the clay and mud riverbed and sealed with concrete once they could be hammered no further. Deep underneath the river, under the slats of the railroad ties, under the boundary marking the upper and lower St. Croix, these pines – once trees perhaps 100 years old – have now rested in their tombs for another hundred years. They anchor a bridge supporting loads of oil, lumber, and other goods heading back and forth from the Twin Cities.
They hold my attention still in the current of daily life. I often pause to consider if the logs used for the pilings came from trees around my home, if their burial was a further mutilation, or if it was a fitting tribute for grand beings of a venerable ecosystem. The indignity of being felled and jammed underwater and underground has a feeling of brutality about it. Their lives were not displayed with the reverence of an iron bracket and labels by a pathway for visitors in a national park. I don’t know if fires scarred the trees or if they marked historical dates in their sapwood. They are strangers in their underwater tombs, ghosts in spirit connected to my life by proximity and the river’s stitching pull downstream.
Even as their former neighbours rest underwater, the few white pines standing on the cliff edges around my home are dear friends. To walk under them and look up is to see branches spiraling outwards like capillaries and arteries. The complexity of our blood vessels looks a lot like their branches. Perhaps that is why you can feel such peace and perfect awe around them. They are invested in this earth and water in a way human beings can never fully understand, at least as they do – what it means to be rooted in place.
I will never see their heartwood in a display case, nor would I want to. But my heart resonates with theirs, and my ribs expand and contract alongside branches in a breeze. Their needles whisper, soft tattoos falling to the ground with traced sunlight. In the middle of winter they shake in blizzards, or split open with an ill-placed lightning bolt in summer storms. The loss of a limb is an injury, not a death sentence, and marks in the shape of human eyes form from the scars of branches lost long ago. Yellow sapwood darkens to bark and the trunk takes on a look of watchfulness over the river below. The bearing of these pines is gentler than the prickly scrape of the pines I knew as a child in Iowa. Even as a newcomer to this ecosystem, I can see the legacy of their former abundance.
Season after season, these pines stood watch on the edges of jagged rock faces guarding each other, steadfast to the ground, reaching upwards to nighttime nets of stars, and the warmth of the rising sun. I’ve paused for these gifts, too, stood near them in frosted grass to watch the late autumn sky shimmer above us, breathed the sharp, sweet scent of sap, lifted walnut-hued cones from their masses on the ground after squirrels dissected them for food. I am used to glorifying completion as a sign of success and mourning the finality of loss; but in time I grow glad for unfinished things, for what wasn’t done to these trees and the blessing of sharing life with this land. When fog rolls down into the valley, only the tallest and oldest crowns punch a silhouette through the mist – the survivors of logging’s heyday. The bent backs of oaks fall short of the glistening spikes of a tree determined to cling on in spite of the ways humans have complicated their world. I watch the wind curl around them with a scarf of vapour until my mind wraps into pine, eyelids closing as I sink below the surface of dreaming into earth bound to rock by the long memory of roots.
In the gardens, little white pines sprout each spring from the scattered seeds of last year’s cones, thin scaly twigs with a determined set to the riotous bottlebrush of needles on their crowns. I know their potential and the strength of their spirits – how they will rise and reach deep into the stone, working roots into each crack, eventually turning the bedrock under my home to dust. And I too dream of a green world, a forest in which we dwell, a forest here long before and long after the span of a human life and crumbling walls. My fingertips reach to smooth their needles like the hair of a sleeping child.