Of the billions of trees in the Northeast, I’ve known maybe 50 well, maybe 10 with a draw-from-memory intimacy. The apple trees I prune each year in the yard, for instance, or the sugar maple outside the sugarhouse that I’ve tapped since I could stand.
Two of the 10 are beech trees. One’s a wolf tree in a patch of small woods I used to frequent as a kid. We – the neighborhood kids and I – had a series of army bases here, and headquarters lay beneath a fairytale tree straight out of Sherwood Forest. I knew all of the initials carved into the bark, even though I didn’t know half of the people who carved them. I knew this tree so well I knew its roots – an intimacy born of spending more than one night sprawled out on the lumpy earth beneath its crown.
The other beech I know is in the big woods up behind camp. This one only has one name carved in it – mine – an act of vandalism that I wish I hadn’t committed (though when you’re 16 it’s hard to resist the temptation to literally leave your mark on the world). I still seek this tree out each fall during hunting season, where I sit cradled in a concave section of its bole. There’s a view to the south and east where we’ve watched generations of geese migrating down the valley. After our visit, I’ll usually head to the top of the mountain, where a pure grove of beech dominates the ridgeline and the only names you’ll find carved in the bark are those of the resident bears.
In light of these memories, I especially enjoyed Patrick Hackley’s sympathetic look at beech on page 46. In reading his story, I was struck by how my relationship with beech has changed over the years – something I suspect is nearly universal amongst our tribe. When you’re young, you love beech trees, right? If an 11-year-old was given the power to create a forest, there would be fruit trees to eat from and white pines to climb, but then flaky paper birches and elephant skin beeches as far as the eye can see.
As we age, this enthusiasm is tempered. Beech bark disease becomes a lesson in dog-eat dog ecology, and we begin to subconsciously favor the forest stands where the boles are true, not the stands that look like a smallpox ward. As we come to understand the economics of forestland ownership, beech can become something to dread. It’s the invasive that’s taking over the understory of your sugarbush, the bane that’s smothered your red oak regen.
It would be easy to make the clichéd point here that we should all remember, from time to time, to look at things like we did when we were kids. But there’s a more adult point to be made, too: that forestry had better be about improving forest health and creating better wildlife habitat and not just about growing sawlogs and veneer. And I’m using that phrase not as a father might tell a child to brush his teeth but as a preacher might tell a parishioner to open his heart. You’d better do it for your own sanity; if you don’t, you’re just setting yourself up for years of disappointment and misery.
We’ve invested who knows how much time and gasoline and diesel fuel and glyphosate in the war against beech brush on our woodlot. And when you’re at war with something, your defeats are always bitter and your victories always hollow in light of the cost. When I look at the areas we’ve treated and the mixed success we’ve had, I often feel overwhelmed and overmatched, knowing full well that this war will probably never end.
And yet, after reading Patrick’s piece, I looked at a diseased beech stand with fresh eyes, and for the first time in a long time I liked what I saw. There was bear sign on a lot of the ugly trees. And while they were hard to see at first, there were potential crop trees that seemed tolerant or resistant. I could see a future where, with a little work, I could steer these woods towards health.
When I marked the first beech tree with an L for leave, it felt like a peace offering. In the context of the nectria-complex, it could have just as well been an L for life; if someday a kid claims this tree as his own, an L for love.
This was an act of vandalism I could be proud of.