Catfaces: Totems of Georgia's Turpentiners
For a hundred miles on either side of the Georgia/Florida border, tracts of longleaf, slash, hill, and loblolly pines flank straightaways of two-lane asphalt. Sandy white soil peeks through blankets of pine needles, and boarded-up Main Streets lead to more stretches of empty, open road. Off of these state highways, long, unpaved lanes dive back into the woods – trails that often bear names of families who have resided here for generations and made their living selling turpentine.
One such drive is George Music Road on the outskirts of Waycross, Georgia. A chute of dirt and sand, it leads into what feels like an infinite pine forest. At the end of the road – and at the center of this forest – sits the century-old home to three generations of turpentiners in the Music family. Close by is the mobile home of 50-year-old George Music, Jr., the only remaining member of the Music family to have worked in the turpentine woods. These woods and the old home are Music’s birthplace. He has spent nearly his entire life right here, listening to the sounds of nature and of work echo from deep inside the body of the forest.
In the 1970s, the livelihood of turpentining, the only work many people here had ever known, became unreliable, then impossible, a consequence of new technologies, alternative industrial sources of turpentine, and cheaper foreign labor. George Music and his father were forced to acknowledge that the dwindling returns they were receiving per barrel of pine resin would not be enough to sustain their family business much longer.
Today, George Music’s forest stands much as it would have before turpentiners ever ventured into this part of the American South. The woods sit silent and empty, devoid of the labor that for so long clattered here. Yet Music’s land still bears evidence that his forest was, for nearly a century, devoted to the extraction of crude gum for producing turpentine. Most striking about his property today is that seemingly every other tree in this forest is missing much of its bark. In its place is a gash extending vertically as much as 10-12 feet from the base of the tree.
You see, working turpentine required a unique scarification of the tree trunks: using a combination of hacks, turpentiners removed the pine bark to tap into the “veins” of the tree. Once wounded, pine trees secrete resin onto the surface of the wound as a protective coat to seal the opening, prevent sap loss, and resist exposure to pathogenic micro-organisms. Turpentiners wounded trees in V-shaped streaks down the length of the trunks so as to channel resin into cups, where it was collected and processed into the spirits of turpentine. The V-shaped streaks – called “catfaces” for their resemblance to a cat’s whiskers – are unmistakably the marks of a turpentiner. Imagine what the landscape must have looked like half a century ago, when most counties in the southern half of Georgia maintained at least 100,000 faces, and some kept over 500,000 catfaces in production.
Over the last several decades, though, these telltale signs have become increasingly scarce, as the turpentine industry has declined and timber and construction companies have cleared the forests. At alarming rates, catfaced trees have been sawed down, turned to paper, crumpled, and tossed into garbage cans. Those that do remain are few and far between.
By virtue of their only-recent rarity, catfaces have become powerful symbols of history and change. And workers like George Music, Jr. have taken it upon themselves to keep catfaces at the center of the cultural landscape. Today, Music stands firm against pressures to surrender his vast acreage of natural standing timber for commercial use. His motivations are at once environmental, moral, historical, and deeply personal, and he has found no more powerful channel than the landscape itself to express these concerns. Though he no longer chips trees or gathers pine resin for his livelihood, George Music continues to make catfaces as memorial, assertion, and resistance.
In most forests of what was once the turpentine belt, the sounds of turpentiners’ hand tools have been replaced by the racket of mechanized timbering and the frenzy of industrial deforestation. Pine forests today crack with the force of bulldozers, the buzz of saws and clatter of rattling chains. But not on George Music’s land. Indeed, both Music himself and the thick forest that envelops his homestead represent an unusual set of circumstances.
When entrepreneurs dealing in naval stores (turpentine and other resinous products used on wooden ships) first arrived along the Georgia-Florida border, they ventured into old-growth piney woods much like George Music’s – forests of virgin timber that had stood for hundreds of centuries, never planted by human hands. Over time, forest after forest toppled like dominos, and naval stores operations were continuously forced to locate new stands of timber in order to survive. It wasn’t until turpentiners had migrated from points north into the pine belt of south Georgia and north Florida that forest researchers discovered how to grow pine trees quickly enough to generate renewable stands of timber.
Planting and replanting quickly became the norm. So the vast majority of pine belt turpentiners – from the early twentieth century through to the industry’s demise – rarely tapped old-growth forests; they worked, rather, in replanted tracts of second- and third-growth timber. This was the case for nearly all private landowners and public contractors alike, both large-scale camp communities and smaller, family-run operations.
Tim Prizer/via Google maps Not so, however, for George Music, Jr. Music’s grandfather purchased an expanse of old-growth forest in Waycross in the early 1900s and raised his son and grandson to work turpentine in woods of ancient pine. Here they worked and lived for the remainder of the industry’s existence, forging a relationship with their forest that has consequently led George Music, Jr. to defend with passion the dwindling remainder of old-growth pine forests in the region today. His unique position as both an owner of natural-standing timberland and a turpentiner who has only worked in old-growth forests has made him a particularly sentient witness to issues facing the region’s moribund acreage of old-growth pine.
Most estimates suggest that a sprawling 156 million acres of natural-standing pine once blanketed the American South, before humans exploited the forests for industry. In the centuries prior to European settlement in south Georgia and north Florida, Native populations of Oconee, Apalachee, Creek, and Timucua found their expansive forests a source of food and shelter, defining wealth in terms of what the forests willingly bestowed rather than by what they could seize from the pines. Since at least the 1600s, however, the region’s old-growth forests have fallen victim to the monetary value of their resinous properties and, most destructively, of their own lumber. For centuries now, old-growth pines have been negligently sawed, chopped, hacked, and plucked from the earth. The damage was such by 1952 that just seventy-two million acres of natural standing timber remained on the southern landscape – less than half of the pine cover from pre-settlement times.
As the total acreage of old-growth pine has diminished, proportions of replanted timber have increased. These replanted stands – more commonly known as “pine plantations” or “tree farms” – range from mature second-growth pine forests to barren fields still in the grass stage of regeneration. At the close of the twentieth century, pine plantations accounted for nearly half of all pineland acreage in the southern states.
Most devastating have been practices associated with “cut-and-run” logging, by which – in a single blow – timber industries casually wipe out vast expanses of pine forest for the profits reaped from their lumber. To this end, the pulp and paper industries have clear-cut southern pine forests to near oblivion while sawmills have turned the piney woods to shavings and sawdust. Yet, timber companies are not alone in cutting and running; construction firms often regard the forests as mere impediments to a new shopping center or residential community, and they too have left their footprint in the forest – one of catastrophic proportions.
Today’s manmade tracts of even-aged pines represent the industrial model of forest management and have rendered the South one of the largest producers of timber in the world. Juvenile seedlings in cleared, open stands are arranged so as to avoid competition with the imposing old-growth pines for sunlight, moisture, nutrients, and root space. Like fields of corn, tobacco, or any other agricultural crop, regenerated pines are sowed in shipshape rows that stand in stark contrast to old-growth forests like George Music’s.
Music has taken great strides to guarantee that his old-growth pines are among the safest of the remaining acres. Outside of his job as a locomotive mechanic and his role as fiddler and harmony vocalist in a local bluegrass band, Music expends the majority of his energy these days ensuring that his timber remains healthy and standing. “There’s not a whole lot to do,” he says, “other than watch out for the timber and make sure it’s taken care of.”
There has never been a mortgage on Music’s property in the nearly ninety years that it has been in his family, and according to its current owner and protector, there never will be. “We like to walk through and look at the timber, look at the different animals and stuff that’s on it. We’re not planning on cutting the timber – ever – that I know about, and I’m the owner of it,” Music stresses. “It’s gonna be here.”
Michael McCloy/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service With the destruction of old-growth woodlands, once-familiar animals and birds are now rare. The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), which spends most of its life burrowed among the roots of pine trees, have been decimated by logging, as has the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis), which makes its home by boring directly into pine trees themselves. Both are now endangered species. Industrial-scale timbering has also eroded the riverbank where Music used to fish, and regular crop dusting over nearby pine plantations has made his wild blackberries and huckleberries inedible.
Music remembers that he and his father sipped standing water from cupped hands when the heat parched their tongues. Not anymore. Today, fertilizer mists soak the forest floor, polluting puddles of rain.
When landscapes change, memories of place become emotionally charged. This is nostalgia for place. But nostalgia, too often associated only with dejection and grief, sadness and longing, can take many forms.
Judy Baxter, via Georgia Info For George Music, and former turpentiners like him, nostalgia carries a sense of urgency. The landscape must be preserved for reasons both ecological and experiential. The pine forests are home to precious species and to cherished experiences alike, all endangered in the face of change. For those who have experienced a pine forest, preservation is as much about history and memory as it is about eco-friendliness. This is why, for George Music, the catfaced trees among the thousands of untapped ones are most central to his efforts at preservation.
While he acknowledges the awesome grandeur of his virgin timber, the pines bearing evidence of life and work in the woods most powerfully bolster his determination to protect and defend his forest. On his property, there are several thousands of trees once used in the production of turpentine. Just as the rings inside the pines tell us how many years they have been standing, the healed wounds on their faces indicate just how long turpentiners have stood beside them. In this respect, the catfaced pines in Music’s woods stand today as important reminders not only of an obsolete industry but also of a rich family history. In George Music’s words, watching the industry pass is “kind of like being, I guess, being married or something for all them years. It’s kind of hard to turn loose something you’ve done for all your life. A lot of fond memories, you know, and that’s what put groceries on the table for all them years.”
Music vividly remembers the day his father hauled their last batch of pine gum to the turpentine still. It was a summer day in 2000. His father returned to the old house from the still in Waycross and told his son, “Well, I reckon I just hauled the last load. They won’t be buying any more after the next couple of weeks.” It was one of the most difficult days of his life.
The work had kept his father healthy both mentally and physically. When the industry passed, the man whose lungs were once so enlarged from hard work that a radiologist could not fit them into one x-ray screen suddenly had little initiative to fight on. As his son explains, “When he had to quit chipping, he’d take the tractor and ride around in the woods all the time… He went looking for other things to do to fill his time. He wasn’t going to sit down because that was quitting. He done some mechanical work, some sawmilling, building some steps for mobile homes and stuff… fixing equipment, doing repairs and stuff.”
It was never quite enough. George Music, Sr. suffered a heart attack and died at the age of sixty-seven on September 12, 2001.
I first met George Music, Jr. on July 12, 2002 – ten months to the day from his father’s death and just two years after the last traces of turpentine were drawn from Music’s timber. Still fresh at the time were the wounds on catfaced pines and the heartache left by his father’s passing.
It was immediately apparent that in Music’s woods the natural world is unusually visible, a stage on which the forces of nature – of life and death – play out and leave little to be unveiled. The forest flourished with life yet felt eerily motionless, like it was not yet empty of his father’s presence. Birds and small animals were still astir, but their habitat had been reduced by storm damage on Music’s property and clear-cutting on neighboring lands. Yet, even among the scattered debris, Mother Nature showed signs of her instinctive restoration. As Music guided me through the natural history museum that is his forest, he stopped at one point to show me that a new shoot is now forming on the stump of the first tree that he ever worked, as a seven-year-old in 1967. The symbolism was transparent for me, as it had been for Music. South Georgia may be called the pine barrens, but for turpentiners there is nothing at all barren about a pine forest.
“[These trees] don’t got to be planted by a man’s hands,” Music explained as he ran his hand over the new shoot. “The pines are put here by God – ‘The Old Master.' The good Lord and old Mother Nature are the onliest thing that’s going to control them.”
Though it has been more than two decades since any turpentine was produced from the resin that pumps through the veins of Music’s pines, his love for his woods grows stronger by the day. And while he no longer works the trees for income, he still considers himself, above all, a turpentiner. These days, he still occasionally marches into the thick of his woods, puller in hand, and slashes into the veins “just for the joy of watching the resin run” – and because he knows his father and grandfather would have it no other way. “It’s still amazing to watch,” he insists, “even though I’ve done it all my life.”
Tim Prizer is a folklorist and doctoral student in anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.