Back in my teenage years, I attended a school that had a lovely, ancient beech tree with a full crown extending well out over the edge of an adjacent sports field. In the late fall, hockey balls would get lost in drifts of yellow leaves. The trunk of the tree was a graffiti wall, its bark inscribed by hundreds of students over possibly a hundred years to reaching height, with names and dates and hearts and the rare epithet, including one that I carved there. It was a challenge to find an empty space. I gave only a moment’s thought to the marks that I would carve, but not to the fact that they would be there until the tree’s death, a tattoo on another’s skin bearing testimony to my brief emotional state.
In the Jemicy woods, we have several American beech trees, none nearly as old as that one from my high school. Their diameter is a foot or so, their bark still relatively unscarred. These are the trees that I can’t help hugging whenever I take kids out there. I get funny looks, but sometimes they try it too, and then they understand. The beeches are so reassuringly solid, so accepting of human touch, and when you spread your palm across the thin, smooth bark-skin, you can almost feel the active vascular system beneath it. “Like squeezing an elephant’s leg,” is how one student tried to describe it. One of the trees nearest the stream bears an inscription: “Jesse.” When I point this out to my students, they are horrified. “Who would ever do that?”
Some trees scar and recover almost without a trace of trauma, like an elm sapling planted as a memorial to a friend, that was shredded in its first fall by buck antlers. Only a thin strip of bark was left intact and we were sure it would never survive. Somehow it rallied, that thin strip grew new tissue, and today the elm stands 30 feet tall, the original scars now buried in healthy wood. I use this tree as an example when teaching my students about the amazing power of the cambium to regenerate new tissue. But beeches are different.
Yesterday I hiked at Oregon Ridge, past an old tree clinging to the side of an eroded path. Within the human-high band of scrawlings on its trunk, none of the marks looked fresh. The old ones still hurt.