Authored by Dirk Stevenson
Reese Thompson and canine friend “Roxie” bound like springboks from the pickup truck and within minutes take their positions at the base of a towering south Georgia Longleaf Pine. From far above a scale of bark, exfoliated by a foraging nuthatch, parachutes into our field of view. Reese, silver-haired, wearing a button-down shirt the color of a ripe mayhaw, clears his throat and begins his talk, a sermon we are eager to hear. You could say he is preaching to the choir — this Conservation Biology class, an upbeat group of university students and their bespectacled professors, about longleaf pine ecosystems. He tells us all about the flora and fauna of these communities, how they became imperiled, why prescribed fires are an absolute necessity in maintaining these ecosystems. This class traveled over 100 miles in a bumpy van to glimpse a vanishing jewel, Reese’s magnificent longleaf forest. They are enthralled.
Reese green eyes dance with passion as he speaks. Gesturing to the massive longleaf trunks on all sides of him, he says, “How long does it take to grow a 100-year old tree”? Reese’s point here is not that it takes an entire century and change to grow the mature, stout and indomitable stems that grace his forest; rather, he emphasizes that it takes at least three-to-four generations, in human terms, to make this happen. His father and grandfather and great grandfather, etc. (six generations of Thompson’s, originally of Scottish descent, have inhabited this piece of property) all loved and championed the stewardship of this tract. The Thompson’s have worked and played here for hundreds of years, burned the woods, hunted game, fished the nearby streams. All have admired the ambling gait of the giant, grizzled fox squirrels, one of many rare species common here (Reese mentions that they dismantle longleaf cones, dining on the soft green seeds).
Later, we take a long hike to explore his property, making a point to drink in as much of the biodiversity as possible. We begin on a wind-blown dune, a ridge of fine “sugar sand” – a rigorous, nutrient-poor habitat; such ridges, good gopher tortoise habitat, are scantily forested with stunted turkey and post oaks, Reese informs us. The naked limbs of the oaks are beautiful, skeletal, in the morning light.
We admire tortoise burrow apron the size of the hoods of late model Buicks, then drop downslope into a pine flatwoods habitat where scarlet kingsnakes are common and where soggy swales are home to yellow pitcher plants. One of many qualities I have grown to love about Reese is that he sees the big picture—he appreciates the iridescent shine of a prowling indigo as much as the gently waving late summer inflorescences of lop-sided Indian grass. The class continues west and moves into the cane-heavy floodplain of a blackwater stream, then soon enough we are along the margins if the stream itself. Some of the bolder students remove their boots, ball up their pant legs and wade in the sand-bottomed, clear, albeit tea-colored stream. Soon, a young woman hollers “the shiners are nibbling my calves!” As is the convention when touring the Thompson Tract, Reese’s wife Pam has prepped us a marvelous lunch complete with numerous dessert offerings.
I asked Reese about his youth. He told me that, “Growing up in the late 60’s and early 70’s, well, it was a turbulent time with the Vietnam war, racial and cultural unrest. I knew my roots ran deep into the land like the Longleaf, it provided a sense of stability in my formative years as a teenager”. Reese and his brother Frank, also a marvelous steward of Longleaf Pine habitats, are southern gentlemen in the truest sense, and we are very fortunate to be their friends and colleagues. Orianne Society staff assists the Thompson with prescribed fire events and other Longleaf Pine management and restoration efforts on their properties.
Reese Thompson was the 2016 recipient of the Longleaf Alliance Gjerstad/Johnson Landowner of the Year Award, in recognition of his efforts toward ensuring the future of the Longleaf Pine ecosystem on private land. Congratulations Reese!