If I were asked to describe one image that most aptly represents the character and feel of the Outer Cape, it would be a gnarled, wind-sculpted pitch pine clinging to the top of a sand dune. Its roots firmly anchored in the sand, a tapering trunk bending back onto itself in turns, coarse and knotted, the dead wood of old limbs sticking out like arrows from a long-past battle, branches reaching out like a dancer’s arms.
You see this as you walk the trails and beaches of the curving forearm of the Outer Cape. The pitch pine’s sinuous form creates a contorted silhouette that stands before a sky splashed in the apricot glow of a September sunset.
The pitch pine, Pinus rigida, also called scrub pine, is a versatile tree. It lines our highways with its dense clouds of rich green needles. It stands tall in groves in clearings and hollows. You will find it growing broad and low, hunkered down in a depression on the oceanside, or solitary, sitting at the very edge of the dune, its shallow, ropey roots reaching down the sandy eroding face of our sandbar.
The tree’s range extends from Maine to Georgia, through the New Jersey pine barrens, and reaching out into the ocean on the sands of the Cape. It can reach heights of 100 feet, but is generally found in the 40- to 50-foot range. It is not a long-lived tree, growing for around 100 to 150 years if it isn’t blown down in one of our ferocious nor’easters.
These trees are extremely well adapted to regeneration from damage and fire. You will often see on the trunk of the pitch pine little clusters of needles bunched together. Each of these needle clusters is a site for regrowth in the event of injury or burning. Its dense, furrowed bark acts as armor against burning as well. After a forest grove burns, the pitch pine will be one of the very first species to regrow from the ashes, its needles seeming to glow with a renewed vigor. It is a tree designed to survive.
Pitch pines have been a valuable tree throughout the Cape’s history. At one point its resin was tapped and collected like maple syrup. The thick, tacky pitch was boiled out and used to seal the hulls of wooden ships. Its wood was used to make charcoal, or was split into thin stakes and burned for the illuminating flame it produces. It is still used as firewood, though not a favorite because of the creosote it produces. The natives are said to have used its pitch to treat scrapes and burns.
I have a fondness for our pines because they exhibit the qualities required to survive here. These trees have adapted to the harshness of this unique environment, grasping the edges of the dunes and enduring against all odds, much like many Outer Cape people. They are tenacious, versatile, resourceful, and resilient. They can be gnarly and stubborn, but are somehow more deeply beautiful for it. The struggle to survive yields a gracious, stripped down, honest form.
The pitch pine would be a great image for a flag if Cape Cod were ever to secede. It would represent both our natural environment and the character of the people who manage to hang on and call this place home.
In the practice of bonsai — the growing and training of trees in small pots to represent those in nature — there is a style of tree called literati. It is a look, a feel, characterized by a fine starkness, a wabi-sabi, a particular kind of elegance that speaks of a hard life. The literati style is considered one of the highest forms of natural artistic expression in bonsai and one of the hardest forms to achieve. It cannot be contrived. Its authenticity is recognizable on an instinctual level.
The pines along our dunes, stark and enduring, elegant and resolute, are the living inspiration for this style. They are masterpieces, sculpted by the salt, the sand, the wind, and the sun of the Outer Cape.