Our curiosity was piqued when we walked the Pine-Aspen Loop off the Sam Graham Trees Trail at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. One option on the loop is an informal path through a stand of white pine trees configured in a staggered double row. The entire length of the path between the two lines of pines can be walked briskly in a few minutes. Or one can amble much more slowly and enjoy the ambiance.

Beneath the trees is a carpet of pine needles punctuated with pinecones and an occasional twig. When the sun is out, the floor glows with soft dappled light. The needles, cones, twigs, and forest debris provide a tapestry of constantly changing natural art, enhanced by a strong sweet pine smell.

While there are surrounding trails, no trail leads out of the row. In fact, large branches grow across the path at both ends.

Bob walked the pathway with David Michener, associate curator of the gardens and Nichols Arboretum, and collections specialist Tom O’Dell.

While Michigan’s great pine forests lay further north, Michener says lumbering records show white pine logs being delivered to mills in Ypsilanti and Rawsonville–evidence that its southern range reached the headwaters of the Huron River. These pines are much younger, planted in the early 1960s. Michener says they were supposed to be sprinkled around the area according to a design created by the gardens’ landscape architect–but the architect went off on sabbatical during the planting phase. The planting superintendent, ignoring the design, decided the trees would make a good windbreak instead. Michener called the row “a smile from the past.”

These particular trees may have come from Ohio–ironic if so, given that the white pine is Michigan’s state tree. They are now part of a larger landscape restoration project to create what O’Dell calls “planned naturalness.” Michener explains that the goal is to gradually remove what does not fit and include all the major native trees in “an ecologically coherent setting.” The trembling aspens that share the loop’s name have already been planted but are still young and inconspicuous. (The main trail is named after U-M faculty member Graham, a pioneer researcher in the ecology of aspens and cottonwoods.)

The experts say the trees we walked among should live about 150 years. As for the needle carpet, the trees shed mostly in the spring and in the fall. The wonderful scent is from fragrant oils that permeate the trees.

Even the tree bark is visually appealing, with a rough texture that conjures up an abstract painting. A variety of lichens grow on the bark.

With winter around the corner, Bob asked whether there are any seasonal changes for these evergreens. Michener’s answer: the sound. What he most enjoys is listening to the wind in the pines, a sound that changes throughout the year.

The double row offers sweet smells, serene sights, and ever-changing wind song. Paul Bunyan would be comfortable here, but he would have to leave his ax at home.