The Sandhills Pine Forest Inspires a Symphony

07 Apr 2022

A Southern Pines writer tells the story of Helen Boyd Dull, her courage and conservation set to music

By Chris Dunn

Over the last few years, Southern Pines writer Ray Owen has been collaborating with composer David Serkin Ludwig on The Bleeding Pines, an oratorio for singers, chorus and orchestra that tells the story of Helen Boyd Dull, who in 1904 saved an ancient stand of longleaf pines after encountering workers bleeding the trees of their resin for the turpentine industry.

A special project of the Arts Council of Moore County, musical organizations and supporters from across the nation have helped to create the piece. Upcoming performances include a West-Coast premiere by Symphony Tacoma with full orchestra and choir, followed by concerts with singers and chamber ensembles in North Carolina and New York City.

Owen is a regular contributor to Pinehurst Living and Sandhills magazines, and his performance work has been produced across the U.S. and in Northern Ireland. Ludwig, Dean and Director of The Juilliard School Music Division, is among the most celebrated American composers, holding positions with orchestras and music festivals around the world.

Ludwig comes from an eminent family of musicians that have shaped his career as a composer. He is the nephew of pianist Peter Serkin, grandson of pianist Rudolf Serkin, and great-grandson of violinist Adolf Busch. “I was resistant to people knowing about my family for a long time,” he admits. “As I got older, I grew to embrace my heritage, taking Serkin as a middle name.”

“There’s a kind of mythology about being a musician, first of all, when you come from this kind of family. And there’s also a feeling that even if you’re successful or maybe especially if you’re successful, you can’t have any kind of normal life. That you’re just kind of always doing it. It’s always on your mind.”

He has composed pieces about everything from climate change and gun violence, to humanity’s role in the universe. “My canvas is concert music,” he shares. “It’s what I know. It’s what I grew up with. It’s the way that I feel like I can express myself with the most nuance, with the most detail, and in the widest way, too.”

“Ray is an extraordinary writer and poet,” says Ludwig, describing their partnership. “We’ve collaborated on a number of projects about the longleaf pines. The forest has an amazing story to tell after facing near extinction from logging and turpentining. It’s ultimately a story of great hope and sends the message that one person can make a fantastic difference in the world.”

Bleeding Pines is based on a play written by Owen, told through the voices of two characters: “Helen” and the “Spirit of Turpentine.” Helen recounts the day she first encountered the old pines and the passion she felt for the land. The Spirit speaks from the perspective of the turpentine worker, whose hardships and life are resonated by the trees.

“I’ve roamed these woods my entire life,” explains Owen. “Longleaf was once among the greatest forests, spreading from Virginia to Texas. But by the turn of the 20th century, the 90-million acre forest was nearly decimated. One of the last great stands was in Southern Pines, and Helen saved these woods on the eve of their destruction.”

In the early 1900s, the train carrying her family was delayed at the depot in Southern Pines and she went with her father on a carriage ride to explore the forested ridge above the village. Climbing the hill, they turned back to catch the view and saw lumbermen leveling the trees in all directions – all that remained was the tract ahead.

Cresting the hill, they entered the woods and came upon scores of trees whose sides were stripped of their bark, marked to let loose the flow, their carved trunks a ghostly white from dried rosin. A forest marked for turpentine was a forest marked for death. Grieved at the sight of the dying forest, Helen pleaded with her father to buy the land and spare the ancient grove.

The trees that she saved are now part of Weymouth Woods. They are the world’s oldest surviving longleaf pines, many still bearing the V-shaped marks made by the turpentiners. Saving these woods sparked conservation across the South, yet it is still among the most threatened places on earth, with only a fraction of the forest remaining.

In 2016, the first Bleeding Pines arias premiered at the Ravinia Music Festival in Chicago, with subsequent development and performances at the Lake George Chamber Music Festival, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and by the Brooklyn Art Song Society, which is among the preeminent organizations dedicated to poetry set to music.

The late Josiah Stevenson, former director of development for the Boston Symphony and vice president of the Curtis Institute of Music, advanced the project through its various iterations. Joining him in his efforts was John Earp, a retired Ford Motor Company executive, who crafted the business plan that guided the way.

Supporters of the symphonic work include The Nature Conservancy. “I believe Bleeding Pines has the potential to break new ground in our efforts to save the longleaf ecosystem,” says Richard Studenmund, the group’s former North Carolina director. “Focusing attention on this amazing place through art extends the reach of the conservation message.”

Other contributors include: Elaine Baillie, John & Lin Burgess, The Donald & Elizabeth Cooke Foundation, Alison Ives, Dr. Nancy James, Dr. & Mrs. Russell McAllister Jr., The National Endowment for the Arts, Dennis Paules, Wayne & Billie Ann Peterson, The Richard J. Reynolds III & Marie Mallouk Reynolds Foundation, Adele Ray, and Caroline Young.

Over the course of its creation, Bleeding Pines has evolved from individual songs set for piano and soprano to a major symphonic work. Its story speaks to conservation everywhere. Set to music, the message is a powerful one for North Carolinians, lovers of the forest and nature, and for everyone who cares about preserving what is unique and beautiful in our environment.

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