“I think that I shall never see, a city so lovely, filled with trees.”
OK, that was my little stab at poetry, as I offer apologies to Joyce Kilmer’s iconic poem, “Trees.” I must tell you, I’ve always been a big fan of trees, especially those that define our little corner of the world, those magnificent pine trees.
And that reminds me of a little story my mother used to tell me.
Shortly after she and my father were married, and before they had children, my parents left Hattiesburg and tried, very briefly, setting up their new lives in California – Los Angeles, to be exact. The city must have been a lot less crowded back then. We’re talking the early 1950s after all. Ahhh, Southern California, a land filled with natural wonders, from the deep blue Pacific Ocean to its west and, during the winter months, snow-covered mountains to the east.
Surely, paradise on Earth to some. But not so much to my father. After being there less than a year, my mother told me how he turned to her one day and said, “Della Ruth, I miss seeing pine trees!”
After that, my chances of being born a California kid ended as my parents packed their bags and moved away from Beverly … Hills, that is. (Well, the general vicinity of Beverly Hills, anyway.)
More than 30 years after my folks tried their hand at becoming southern Californians, I did indeed end up becoming a California kid … when I moved there in 1982. I lived in Los Angeles for 12 years and would trade nothing for it.
Living in such a diverse city and experiencing so many cultures was equal to all the learning I’d received during my college years at Southern Miss.
Luckily, my job there – working for fitness guru Richard Simmons – provided me with the opportunity to not only travel the country but to get home to Hattiesburg, on average, four times a year. I was back here so often, a lot of folks thought I still lived in Hattiesburg.
Besides missing my family, though, you know what else I missed about south Mississippi? (Wait for it.) Our beautiful pine trees! I guess that was my father’s spirit living inside me.
True, from the ocean to its mountains, southern California was blessed with plenty of natural beauty. One thing it lacked, though, is the lush greenery we’re blessed with here in south Mississippi. Keep in mind, southern California is basically a desert. You realize that as you’re driving back to Hattiesburg.
As soon as you (finally) escape the freeways of metro LA – the city is so big, it takes more than two hours — you realize Los Angeles is backed up to the Mojave Desert. Instead of endless acres of fertile green woods, like you see driving outside of Hattiesburg, you see hundreds of miles of sand.
Living in Los Angeles, it’s easy to forget you’re surrounded by desert. But that’s because water pumped in from the Hoover Dam in Nevada provides the city with drinking water and allows for its artificially green, manicured lawns. When I lived there, the city was notorious for its water shortages, and still is.
How’s that? Water? Hey, no problem here. We get plenty of rain, providing nourishment for south Mississippi’s abundant forests filled with our beautiful longleaf and loblolly pines.
Hattiesburg history buffs know those pine forests helped build our city in more ways than one. We started out as a lumber town and, with that timber needing to be shipped – providing construction needs for a growing country – it led to our becoming a railroad town, too.
I’m sorry to say many of us don’t give our pine trees a second thought. In fact, we’re guilty of taking them for granted, failing to appreciate how beautiful they make our region of the country and our city.
Los Angeles has its oceans and mountains; New Orleans, its mighty Mississippi River; and Gulfport and Biloxi have the Gulf of Mexico. And what about us? Well, God blessed us with our endless stands of pine forests, blanketing the gently rolling hills of south Mississippi. They are our own natural wonders. But, what do we do? Well, we cut them down, of course.
The most glaring example is the Hardy Street to U.S. 98 business corridor. Back when I was a kid, and many of you my age will remember, once Hardy Street reached Interstate 59, the city of Hattiesburg stopped, period. Once you crossed the interstate, as late as the early 1970s, you were, literally, in the woods.
Driving over I-59 into Lamar County, you were greeted by woods, filled with miles and miles of pine trees. Heck, you were lucky to find even a filling station west of I-59. Well, that’s no longer true, is it?
Today, U.S. 98 is Hattiesburg’s main business corridor, filled with everything from shopping centers to hospitals and apartment buildings. But you know what’s missing – the pine trees that once bordered the entire roadway.
Hattiesburg developers seem to be of the opinion that those pesky pines are nothing more than a nuisance. For them, every single pine tree must be cut down to make way for the next 100,000-square-foot Walmart Supercenter or Lowe’s building supply store. And, of course, they then have to mow down even more trees to make way for acres of asphalt-covered parking lot. Then, on the edge of those giant heat-generating parking lots, a handful of ornamental shrub trees are added for “beauty.” They’ve missed the point. The beauty was already there.
Here’s a better idea: instead of chopping down our decades-old pine, oak and other beautiful trees, incorporate them into new developments.
The newly minted District at Midtown, Hattiesburg’s most urbane neighborhood, outside of downtown, should be dotted with pine trees rather than the “decorative” trees that appear to have been added as an afterthought.
The City of Hattiesburg is planning a public park for the midtown area, which is an excellent idea. I hope the new park will include plans for growing the kind of trees that, in maturity, will add real beauty to the park and provide much-needed shade for one of our sweltering hot summer afternoons.
Beyond midtown, Hattiesburg should place more emphasis on allowing our area’s trees to play more of a starring role as we continue to grow into an increasingly urban area. Where is the plan for a more beautiful Hattiesburg, one that takes advantage of our natural setting?
Thankfully, there are some encouraging improvements. If you haven’t driven down 38th Avenue lately, I’d suggest you take a look. To the city’s credit, 38th has been transformed to a much more pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare complete with sidewalks and even beautiful streetlamps. Now, that’s the way you do it.
Hattiesburg has always reminded me of a much smaller version of our big-city-cousin over in Georgia: Atlanta. Besides size, the other difference between us and Atlanta is how that city recognizes the importance of its trees. Downtown Atlanta, its own midtown district and, of course, fashionable Buckhead neighborhood, are all filled with glittering glass-covered skyscrapers. But, in spite of its many high-rise buildings, Atlanta has always recognized the beauty of its natural setting, even in its commercial areas. The South’s most engaging metropolis, Atlanta feels more like a big city exuding a bit of small-town charm, carved into the Georgia woods.
Atlanta, as well as other cities that recognize the importance of its trees, has a lesson for Hattiesburg. We should stop thoughtlessly cutting down our city’s greatest natural asset, our beautiful trees, especially our trademark pines.
A friend of mine lives on the 18th floor of a high-rise condo in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan. She teased me once, pointing out how I couldn’t look out my window and see the towering Empire State Building like she could. I fired back: “Linda, you can’t stand in your (ahem) ‘backyard’ and stare up at towering 100-foot pine trees!”
Our pine trees are our skyscrapers and, more importantly, they’re our own natural wonders. We should show more appreciation for living in a part of the country that surrounds us with so much of nature’s bounty. Those pine trees were here long before we were and define our part of the world.
Hey, why do you think they call us the Pine Belt?
Elijah Jones is a proud Hattiesburg native who enjoys writing. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.