James Pinsky: Trees: The very best friend a kid could ask for


I love trees.

I think it began as a child when I would stand in awe of the wave upon wave of loblolly pines that guarded my childhood playgrounds in North Carolina. I was never tall, but they were. I always admired how they ignored winter’s harsh bite, served as jungle gyms for squirrels and padded the Carolina forest floors with soft pine needles. As a boy, the coaxing of a bed of pine needles motivated many a mid-summer day’s naps.

To this day, some 42 years later, the smell of a pine tree sends me home to my mother’s kitchen table where a full day’s play was often rewarded with a PB&J sandwich and an ice-cold glass of chocolate milk. My mother, Martha, died when I was just 19 years old and I am absolutely sure God purposely welded my love for her with the smell of pine needles so I could never truly be without her.

A career in the U.S. Navy, especially the first 10 years where I served as a mechanical engineer on nuclear submarines, took me much farther away from trees than I ever wanted. After I changed my specialty in the Navy from being an engineer to a globetrotting photojournalist, my adventure with trees began again. Sadly I have seen what humankind can do to trees and what not having trees can do to humankind. No less than four trips to Haiti and that country’s massive deforestation still tugs at my heart mostly because of how preventable their environmental problems were. I’ve seen massive mudslides. I’ve seen polluted water. I’ve seen soil erosion so bad you can see the Earth’s skeleton. To me, soil has always been the flesh of our planet. Eerie, I know. In 2005 the Navy sent me to Bande Ache, Indonesia, to document the horrific tsunami and I saw what tidal waves do to trees, to forests, and to entire civilizations. But I’ve also seen what trees can do to protect, heal and grow our world.

In 2012 I retired from the U.S. Navy because I knew it was time for me to serve my country in a much different way. I got this idea, of course, sitting under what is my favorite tree, the cedar, near Warrenton. Cedars are amazing trees to me because they give forests the kind of character they need to be taken seriously. They dominate the woods like an old Lincoln Town Car might dominate a parking lot, being a bit too big, too wide and too non-conformist to be ignored. Still, it was underneath a cedar where I remembered those tall, skinny pine trees in North Carolina from my childhood that inspired my devotion to conservation. I doubt there is a better fountain of youth than our favorite childhood scent, and a good whiff of pine needles today whisks me back to a time when my biggest worry was being home before the street lamps turned on. To this day I am not sure if I always want to be around trees so I never forget my mother or if my mother’s job was to make sure I never forgot about trees.

Trees really are magical. Not just for the memories they hold for people like me, and maybe you, but because of what they do for us every day. Trees ask for little in return for the good they do for us whether we live in the Shenandoah Valley, the city of Winchester or sleepy Strasburg. Did you know trees tame storm water, fight climate change, save us energy, help mitigate soil erosion, help purify water, serve as wildlife habitat, are completely renewable and serve as a major industry for lumber, paper, and other natural products? Trees give us a helping branch for a tire swing, and a strong trunk to lean against when you kiss the girl of your dreams. They scratch our backs in the woods, serve as filters from our neighbors, protect us from harsh winds and last, but not least, give us oxygen.

Trees are key players in most any conservation program and the good folks at Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District are big fans of the tree’s ability to protect and preserve our soil and water quality. If you want more trees in your life, and especially if you have more concrete on your commute than forest, let us know. The new Virginia Conservation Assistance Program might be just the thing for you. It provides financial reimbursement to property owners installing specific conservation practices, including ideas like developing a cost-share program to encourage private properties to plant trees to convert land into forests or to provide streamside riparian buffers.  To learn more, visit us at www.lfswcd.org.


James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.