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Remembering where our names come from

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, January 10, 2005

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Go, Tar Heels, go!

Twenty thousand basketball fans were shouting this cheer in the Smith Center in Chapel Hill last weekend.

The odds are you couldn't explain to an outsider what tar has to do with North Carolina.

How many of them had any idea where the name came from?

And, while UNC-Chapel Hill has appropriated the term for its athletic teams, the term properly applies to any North Carolinian. We are proudly the Tar Heel State, and every one of us is a Tar Heel-even those of us who didn't go to Carolina.

Some of us more are proud of it than others. But no matter how proud you are to be a Tar Heel, the odds are you couldn't explain to an outsider what tar has to do with North Carolina.

It would be a good hint if somebody reminded us about the official North Carolina toast: "Here's to the Land of the Longleaf Pine!"

Or if we remembered that when the Governor wants to give a high honor to an individual North Carolinian, he makes that person a member of the Order of the Longleaf Pine.

While our state's names and honors are tied to tar and longleaf pines, it is tobacco that has been the informal symbol of our state during the lifetimes of most of us.

With the end of the government's price support system and the continued growth of global tobacco production, maybe our state's close association with this product will drop away. Even if it does, the evidence of tobacco's historical dominance seems to assure that people who live in North Carolina will always appreciate their tobacco heritage. Not only the many exhibits in museums, but also the permanent marking of prominent state institutions with the names of Reynolds, Duke and other tobacco families might make us think that tobacco's mark will be with us forever.

But the names don't necessarily do the job. Most people do not have a compelling interest in what "used to be important." And when tobacco has completed its transition to an ordinary commodity crop, our emotional ties to it may fade away--just as we have put aside the memories of the business of making tar and of the longleaf pine forests that made it possible.

For those of who believe that what "used to be important" can still be interesting and useful in understanding the present, a new book tells the story of the longleaf pine forests and the businesses they made possible. "Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of An American Forest" was written by Larry Earley and published by UNC Press.

To tell us this longleaf story and the roll of tar, resin, turpentine, and tall pine lumbering in our region, Earley, a former editor of "Wildlife in North Carolina" magazine, brings a love of the outdoors and the gift of a great storyteller.

The story begins with almost 100 million acres of longleaf forests stretching across the coastal plains and sandhills of the Southeast that greeted the European colonists of North America.

This giant ecosystem was beautiful and diverse-and complicated. The longleaf dominated because it lived comfortably with the fires that regularly swept across its forest floor, destroying its competitors. In this cycle of fire and regrowth, a variety of plants and animals thrived.

The longleaf provided a seemingly endless supply of "naval stores" for the European navies. The pitch and tar that came from the longleaf forest were critical to the construction and maintenance of wooden ships. Because the European forests had been exploited into oblivion, the endless longleaf forests of England's colonies gave its navies an important advantage in its struggle to dominate the seas.

How did the exploitation of the longleaf for its tar, pitch, resin, turpentine, and lumber led to its almost complete disappearance? This is a big part of Earley's story. Along the way, readers can learn how North Carolina's early economy revolved around the longleaf and the businesses that depended on it-and destroyed it. Part of that story is how the barefoot workers near the tar pits picked up patches of tar on their heels as they went about their business and became the first "Tar Heels."

Thankfully, there is more to the story than the "fall" of longleaf forest. There is also a newly developing "rise." Conservation efforts are preserving some of the remaining patches of longleaf, like the beautiful Weymouth Woods near Southern Pines. Quail hunters have found the longleaf woods a paradise for their efforts to preserve game. Some tree farmers are using the harvest of longleaf pine straw to gain a fair return on commercial longleaf forest.

Earley acknowledges that these activities will never bring back the full glory of the longleaf. But he is a pragmatic conservationist who celebrates the possibility that these sustainable remnants will be even more powerful reminders of our state's past than our Tar Heel nickname or the longleaf toast.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week's (January 16) guest is John Dalton, author of "Heaven Lake."

Programs coming up:

January 16: John Dalton, Heaven Lake

January 23: Chuck Stone, Squizzy the Black Squirrel

January 30: Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities

February 6: Sheila Kay Adams, My Old True Love

Related info:
Our State Magazine
e-mail E-mail this page
print Printer-friendly page
Remembering where our names come from

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