Scotch pine set off against partly cloudy sky

Scots Pine, Pinus Sylvestris, photo credit: K. Rummer


Listening to the pines

Tree wisdom for pandemic life

by Ken Rummer

From my favorite pew at church — yes, even retired ministers tend to sit in the same place on Sunday — from that special spot I can look up and out through the clear windows around the cross and see the tops of pine trees.

With in-person worship on extended hold as a virus precaution, I see the pines in memory now, their needles rippling in irregular waves like monster fur in a Pixar movie. I relax a bit. It feels familiar, like bumping into someone I know.

They are Scots pines, if I have the identification right: small cones, crooked branches, orange bark on the upper limbs.

Some object to the common name Scots or Scotch for these trees because, although they are found in Scotland, they are also native to the northern reaches of Europe and Asia. Their scientific name, Pinus sylvestris (wild pine or pine of the forest), offers a geographically neutral form of address.

I like the look of the pines against the dark clouds of a summer storm. Powder-sugared with snow, they complement the slate-gray backdrop of mid-winter. And seeing their needles set off against a blue, blue sky by the slant sun of a spring morning? Quietly astonishing.

They are doomed, of course—those trees. A plague of pine wilt hangs over our state. The disease process is complicated, involving a nematode hitchhiking on a sawyer beetle, but once a tree is infected, it can go from green needles to brown, from life to death, in a matter of weeks.

Pine wilt is so widespread and fatal in these parts that Iowa State University lists Scots pine as “no longer recommended for long term planting.” The ones we see now are likely going to die.

Truth be told, so are we.

So I’m enjoying the trees while I can. The last time I saw them from my pew, they were full of spring, gripping flower stalks at branch ends like acolytes bearing candles.

But brown needles here and there concerned me. Is it the normal shedding of the oldest needles, or something more sinister? I’m remembering the pines in the next yard that looked to be of the same vintage. Fatally infected, they have already gone the way of the chain saw. My trees could be next.

How then to live in the shadow of death? By going high risk, riding rodeo bulls and jumping out of airplanes? By being extra careful, hiding out in a room filled with pillows? By trying not to think about it, clicking the channel and thumbing the phone?

Approaches differ, but the question remains: how best to live when stalked by death?

I ask the pines, but I can’t make out their reply. Perhaps I require a certified translator, or the ears of a child.

The pines just keep reaching toward the sun, and dancing with the wind, and welcoming the birds that stop to perch and nest and sing.

But maybe that’s an answer after all.

Ken Rummer writer

Ken Rummer, a retired Presbyterian pastor, writes about life and faith from the middle of Iowa by the High Trestle Trail. Additional posts may be found at