In most other forests, the tang of wood smoke raises a primal shiver of fear. At Weymouth Woods, it is the scent of new life.
Visitors hiking the white-sand trails of this Southern Pines-area preserve are walking in a woods that craves flame. That's because for this longleaf pine forest to survive, it must burn. Fire devours leaves and pine straw, opening a clear patch of fertilized ground on which longleaf seeds can land. It gives the longleaf the space it needs to become an emperor among pines, trees for which 200 years is middle-aged.
"A vast forest of the most stately pine trees than can be imagined," was how naturalist William Bartram in the 1700s described the longleaf forests blanketing the Southeast.
Longleaf once covered about 90 million acres, stretching from the coast of Virginia to Texas. Today, fewer than 3 million noncontiguous acres remain - and Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve is a 900-acre portion of that surviving forest. One of the preserve's tracts is home to a 463-year-old longleaf, the oldest Pinus palustris in the nation.
On a recent hike through Weymouth, an eerie stillness hung over the open pine savanna. The drum of woodpeckers - the rare red-cockaded woodpecker relies on mature longleaf to nest - was the only sound, until a breeze rose. Then came a long, low rush of wind through pines, like the purr of surf.
Looking through the grassy savanna, pillared with pine trunks, it was easy to imagine the trackless wild a longleaf pine forest once was - a landscape so unchanging that early settlers traveling overland to Savannah, Ga., would get lost and miss the town.
"If they knew you were arriving, they'd shoot off a cannon in the direction from where you were coming, so you could find it," said Kim Hyre, Weymouth park ranger. "People would get disoriented because it all looked the same."
That sameness gave rise to the term "pine barrens." But longleaf forests like Weymouth are anything but barren.
Wildflowers freckle the grassland, revealing their beauty to a careful observer. "There's pine barren gentians, which have the most beautiful blue on the planet," said Scott Hartley, Weymouth park superintendent.
"Gentian blooms October all the way to Thanksgiving. There's meadow beauty, a pink bloom in late spring through summer. There's wild indigo, which actually has a yellow flower." Weymouth's list of wildflowers also includes lupine, sandhills lily, orchids and asters.
Birds such as Bachman's sparrows, pine warblers and northern bobwhites share the open understory of the longleaf with fox squirrels - the larger, flashier cousins of the more common gray squirrel.
It's that savanna that gives the longleaf the light and space it needs to grow. The pine can spend a decade in the grass stage - when it looks like little more than bushy tuft. At that stage, the little tree is spending all its energy developing its root system. When mature, the pines don't have a massive girth but have tall, limbless trunks that rise to a flat crown of limbs bent like a bunch of arms with elbows akimbo, green with the 18-inch needles for which the tree is named.
The ingredient that makes all of Weymouth's species thrive is fire.
"This is what we call a 'fire-dependent ecosystem,' which sounds weird because we were raised on the idea that fire is destructive," Hyre said.
Forest managers planning fires write a prescription for them, "like a doctor writing a prescription for healing," Hyre said. The prescription sets parameters for a burn - wind direction, temperature, humidity, moisture level.
Once the day comes when all parameters are met, a daylong fire is set in an area closed to the public and the fire is organized so flames don't reach above 3 feet. That protects pines with terminal buds on top.
"We do this in sections so that every unit is on a rotation (for fire) every two to five years," Hyre said. "And herbaceous layers thrive after this. In 24 to 48 hours after a seasonal burn, those herbaceous plant layers are springing back up."
Once, lightning strikes sparked the fires that kept Weymouth Woods healthy. Now, the Southern Pines area is filled with homes and golf courses, and fires must be managed by people.
A long burning history
Weymouth has a long history of human management.
Creek, Choctaw and Cherokee hunted there, Hyre said. Native Americans sometimes would burn large sections of longleaf to help create the airy forest attractive to deer and buffalo.
"This was great hunting land," Hyre said. "It was not a village. There was no permanent water here (because) the small creeks come and go."
Arrowheads recovered in the forest show evidence of many different tribes following game through the area.
The mild management of the forest for hunting shifted to a much more intense use after European settlers arrived.
When Scottish Highlanders settled in the Sandhills in the mid-1700s, merchants looked at the 100-foot longleaf pines and saw the answer to the Royal Navy's shipping needs. Trees became masts. Trunks and branches were burned for tar to coat rigging and pitch to seal hulls. Resin collected from cuts in the trunks was distilled into turpentine to preserve wood and for use as an ingredient in medicine.
That history is in plain view along the Weymouth's white-sand trails, which wind past old trees scarred with the inverted V that bled resin but kept the trees alive.
"North Carolina was No.1 for 150 years for exports of the naval store industry before 1900," Hyre said. After the discovery of oil, the market for naval stores largely dried up. By then, much of the southern forest was played out. Trees scarred for resin lost their the bark that protected them against fire; also, planters chose faster-growing pine species for lumber.
But a hike in Weymouth is more than a walk through a museum. The vast, connected longleaf ecosystem may have vanished, but the story of the longleaf is one of resilience, Hartley said.
"Longleaf is making a comeback. (It's a) tree private landowners have started planting here in the Sandhills area," he said. "There's been a lot of interest in restoring longleaf in the Southeast in general. It's almost a rebirth of the longleaf."