Excerpt from Dispersals: On Plants, Borders, and Belonging

Nature writer Jessica J. Lee combines memoir, history and scientific research in her newest book, exploring how plants and people come to belong 

  • Published Mar 20, 2024
  • Updated Mar 21
  • 1,236 words
  • 5 minutes
(Cover design: Penguin Random House Canada; photo: Ricardo A. Rivas)
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Excerpted from Dispersals by Jessica J. Lee. Copyright © 2024 Jessica J. Lee. Published by Hamish Hamilton Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Published. All rights reserved. 

In 2011, a team of researchers uncovered a series of fossils at the Bailey Quarry near Windsor, Nova Scotia. The remnants of charred twigs were no larger than two centimetres long and surrounded with gypsum. Howard Falcon-Lang, the lead researcher, boxed them up and sent them back to London. They remained in a drawer untouched for years.

In 2016, these twigs took up headlines. The area they had been found in was known for deposits dating back to the Cretaceous Period, between 66 and 145 million years ago. Falcon-Lang had finally dissolved their surrounding gypsum in hydrofluoric acid and rinsed them with distilled water, releasing tiny pieces of charcoal. The pieces were examined with a scanning electron microscope and then dissected with a scalpel and examined once again. Each showed the suggestive characteristics of a pine tree: tubular resin ducts surrounded by thin-walled epithelial cells, and the bases for fascicles of two needles. Based on these characteristics, Falcon-Lang determined his twigs to be of an unnamed species, an early example from an age before our present pines came into existence. He offered Pinus mundayi as their Latin binomial, in honour of two Welsh physicians—Derek and Mary Munday—who had guided him through treatment for Lyme disease he’d contracted during his fieldwork. The fossils, at 133 to 140 million years old, are the oldest known examples of a pine tree in history.

For a long time, it was difficult to accurately classify pines. They have large genomes, and many species have chromosomes that look rather alike. But there are some things we know with certainty.

Pines—the genus Pinus specifically—emerged around 150 million years ago, dispersed across the Northern Hemisphere before North America, Europe, and Asia broke apart. Oaks did not yet exist, nor beeches, nor birches. The world then was warmer, and pines specialised early in surviving difficult conditions, eventually finding a home extending from north of the Arctic Circle as far south as the tropics. The pines, you might then say, are venturing trees. Tenacious, innovative, adaptable.

But there is another taxonomy by which I understand the pine.

Pine Ridge was a suburb inside a suburb, a more affluent stretch of houses arranged in a U shape around a stand of eastern white pine trees. Before Pine Ridge was built, the forest bordered on farmland and houses, all of which would soon be bought up to build a few strip malls and one very large shopping mall. This was 1988

(Photo: Jessica J. Lee)
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The plot my parents bought extended a hundred feet into the trees. To a child, it felt vast. All the houses on our side of the street backed onto these trees, and no one had fences put in yet. The forest became the territory of the neighbourhood kids. We’d spend entire weekends in this forest, making believe. Our city called itself the Forest City—and here, as a child, it felt true. The forest gave us shelter to run wild—to play, experiment, and imagine—though we didn’t fully understand it at the time.

We played until the parents decided to put in fences, stretches of wood or coils of wire that reached out into our woodland, blocking it off into tidy squares. I stopped wandering into the trees entirely. What was the point if I couldn’t go anywhere at all? And besides, half the pines in the neighbourhood were sick and needed to be felled. The houses had been built too close to their roots, an arborist told us. On our plot alone, nine pines withered and gave way to grass.

I did not think seriously about forests until I was a teenager, and then only at the bidding of my schoolteachers. We read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth and analysed the way setting shaped a story’s possibilities, the way tree canopies gave shelter to mischief, and way the slow succession of forests signified a tightening circle of fate. But after I left home, I lived for years in places where I rarely saw pines at all.

Then I moved to Germany, where it seemed that so many of the cultural ideas I had about forests had originated. This was the east, and very little ancient woodland remained. But there were pines: an infinitude of Scots pines laid over a flat landscape. It was winter the first time I walked the forest path where a tangled stand of pine grew. Its branches hadn’t been cut back, giving the impression not of a woodland one could enter, but of a forbidden forest: thorny, dark, green dulled by the mist that hung low to the ground. Here, I thought, was the pine of the Brothers Grimm. But this was a working landscape, and almost all the pine trees in the land around Berlin belonged to managed plantations. Every so often a stand would be marked out with spray paint, hemmed in with barricade tape. The next time I returned, tidy stacks of logs stood at the perimeter where the trees once were.

(Photo: Jessica J. Lee)
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One pinewood south of the capital is still turning up remains of soldiers and civilians from the Second World War. In another, at the end of a plantation I found a dilapidated nineteenth-century castle fit for a fairy tale. It had been requisitioned by Himmler, and its grounds had been renovated by the prisoners of a nearby concentration camp.

I often walked in these forests alone. Each time, I felt a little bit afraid. I attuned my senses to the environment around me: the glint of sunlight between high branches, the smell that emanated from the sand underfoot. I recited the names of forest species: Scots pine, heather, bilberry. Eventually my skin stopped prickling at every dark thought, and my head stopped turning at every creak from the timber above.

I have begun to collect pines in my life. I do not realise it at first, but I am noting their subtle differences—the shape of a cone, the thickness of bark, the way a spray of needles drapes from a branch.

Once I’d spent a few weeks identifying herbarium specimens at Kew Gardens. At lunchtime, I often walked out into the gardens, hoping to see as much as I could with my visitor’s pass. Near the herbarium I found a single pine tree: an Austrian black pine in a mulched-over bed along a pathway in the back. It was remarkably straight, with metallic scales climbing its trunk, and a bushy, dark spray of branches near its top. Standing beneath it, I could think only of the backyard pines I grew up with.

The next summer, I added to my collection while visiting my family. Small clusters of evergreen life that I found dotted around the ground of the cottage, a place where jack pines and white pines reach out across the rocks. I arranged them along the windowsill and filed their forms away in my mind, recorded the feel of their needles, cones, and bark.

What I had in mind was a pinetum: an imagined one, perhaps, a place to hold all the pines I had ever known. Where pines that spanned vast distances would feel, to me, like home.


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