Lessons from the Red Pine

red_pine1This is a picture of the majestic Red Pine (Pinus resinosa), an oft painted, photographed, and otherwise adored coniferous tree. For me, this tree is synonymous with northern Ontario, a place full of peace and natural beauty. Much like a snow capped mountain, a glass calm lake, or a plethora of nature’s other endless amazements, you can’t help but experience a deep appreciation of nature when you see a full grown Red Pine standing resolutely and indifferently in front of you. It dares you to stir up your sleeping senses of awe and wonder, its essence encourages you to pause and reflect.

The Red Pine grows pretty commonly in southern Canada and high on mountain ridges in the United States. They can live for up to 350 years and reach heights of 120 feet and diameters of up to 3 feet. Seeds best germinate when they fall on bare, mineral soil. The young pine seedlings also need lots of intense, direct sunlight in order to grow. Because of these germination and seedling requirements, red pines are not able to grow well in undisturbed pure stands in which the forest floor is shaded and covered with thick layers of decomposing pine needles. It is only after forest fires or some other event causing tree loss that young red pines have a chance to germinate and grow.

Recently, Trail Runnner Magazine (http://trailrunnermag.com) asked it’s readers an intriguing question: Do trail races result in unnecessary damage to the environment? At first glance, the question seems like it has easy answers. Of course they do, some might say, litter, compacted-desolate trail scars, wild fields and trail shoulders cut back to accommodate runners and large numbers of support staff and spectators, emergency washroom breaks, damaged trees, the list goes on, and each of these examples provides valid arguments against the necessity of running through our previously undisturbed wild lands. However, I think the existence of the Red Pine provides us with a powerful, more meaningful answer to the question.

Two years ago, some friends and I traveled out west to tackle The Canadian Death Race. A 125km relay (and solo event if you desire) race through the Rocky Mountains. 1700 feet of elevation change, 3 mountain summits, and 1 wild river crossing throughout the course provided plenty of opportunity for taking in the mind-boggling, infinitesimal beauty of this part of North America. We finished 18th that year, but two very important things took root in me. First, I wanted to become faster, better, and more competitive in these events. Secondly, I wanted to share the feelings that an experience like The Death Race has on one, with many other people.

I went home, and as my trail running experiences evolved, so did my life. I joined, and then became vice-chair of my local community’s multi-use trail committee, I coerced non-running friends to enter local trail events with me, I became a vegetarian, and completed my master gardener program through the Agricultural College at Nova Scotia, I supported my young students in our school running clubs and helped them sign up for their first races, and as all these things were happening, I continued to grow as a runner, teacher, husband, father, and person. The trail had changed me.

This summer, that same group of friends and I won the Men’s Division at The Canadian Death Race. Won! A feat that none of us were expecting as we towed the start line that ominous August morning. We were electric with excitement. But, as I look back on that experience now, I realize the best part of the entire trip happened the day after the win, at the secluded lake we swam in like little children, the mountains standing over us in their magnificence like approving parents. It’s funny how a landscape can kick your ass and explode open your heart and mind at the same time.

Trail Races do some damage to the environment, it’s hard to argue against that fact. But, for anyone who has their eyes and ears open to the world around them as they traipse along, these events instil in them a sense of appreciation that is absolutely necessary in the development of the human spirit. This experience far outweighs any relatively insignificant damage that happens to occur on the day of the actual event. We leave these events with our fingers more accurately aligned on the pulse of mother nature. We become more inspired and motivated to do right by her, and in my experience, we then do.

In general, most of our population still views forrest fires as only a bad thing. For certain, they inflict unnecessary damage. But in nature’s timeline, that damage doesn’t last very long. As its memory fades away, groves of young red pines that were dependent on that forrest fire for their beginnings emerge. Ultimately, what takes shape is an awe-inspiring portrait of nature.  When our appreciation of the earth grows, so too does our desire to care for it.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from the Red Pine

  1. Hey, I enjoyed reading your Death Race/red pine story. I live in Cambridge, just upstream from you am in the Cambridge Harriers and have been a runner for 47 years. I can’t get enough trail running and know just about every one of them in this area. Of course we are connected via the rail trail but I prefer forest trails. The Grand Valley Hiking Trail connects us too. Keep it up. George Aitkin

  2. As a teacher and forest ecologist, as well as trail runner, I love this analogy. People can’t care deeply about what they don’t tangibly experience. And I’ve found that those who make the extra effort to know and live in nature take the time to share with others and advocate for conservation.

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