Seeing the sacred trees in bloom
Perhaps no plant speaks more clearly to the profound weirdness of Paint Rock’s forests than the smoketree. But that weirdness has a surprising relevance to forests throughout North America.
So we made our pilgrimage down into Honey Holler in June to see the smoketrees in bloom. Puffs of pale lavender smoke covered the treetops, as the spent purple bells of the endangered Morefield’s clematis twined around its trunks.
Around here, folks treat smoketree as something sacred. They call it chittamwood, the wood from which the biblical ark was built. There’s no good explanation for how Noah managed to stumble across a plant that exists only in North America, and not much patience for the idea that biblical chittamwood was used in the construction of quite another kind of ark, the Ark of the Covenant.
But there’s also no real reason for the tree to have inspired such legends — unless those who saw the smoketrees sensed something very odd and special about this tree. Maybe it’s the way the golden wood never seems to disappear. After falling, twisted trunks lie in the forest for decades, maybe even closer to a century, before rotting. To see the carcasses of these trees scattered across the limestone ledges where the tree grows is enough to inspire a kind of awful reverence.
Folks are just as awed when they discover that the smoketrees they’ve grown up with or in fact quite rare anywhere else in the world. In the eastern U.S., they’re known only from certain soils in a handful of counties in north Alabama and adjacent Tennessee. Then they skip some 500 miles before finally showing up in the Ozarks of Missouri. And they skip again, another 500 miles or so, to show up in a handful of counties in the Hill Country of Texas.
The conventional explanation for this far-flung distribution is that the smoketree, and others like it, were once more widespread, and because of climate changes, contracted to a few special refuge areas, like Paint Rock and the Ozarks and the dry Texas hills. But that really doesn’t explain why they contracted, or why they continue to persist in a few refuge sites that have little in common when it comes to climate.
That’s one of the important reasons we’re here in this weird and weirdly rich forest in Paint Rock. We want to know why it has been home to such rare trees as smoketrees, and extraordinarily rare vines like the endangered Morefield’s clematis that trails around its trunks. On the rocks a few feet below is one of the few sites in the world where the rare limerock viburnum grows, and beside it, there’s the limerock woodmint that has never really seen the world outside of the Paint Rock mountains.
What in the world is going on here?