The Poetry of Trees

In my backyard stands an American beech (Fagus grandifolia), 20 years old.

American beech (photo from November 2018)

I know it’s two decades old because it was a gift to my wife from her sister on her 40th birthday in 1991. It’s meant to remind her of the copper beach (Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea) that grew in front of their childhood home near Philadelphia.

On any given day, American beech is my favorite tree. Why? Well, obviously, it’s that smooth, gray bark that draws the eye in a forest of furrowed, ridged, warty, and scaly trees.

Beech tree (center) in Springvale Park

It’s the way that the forest floor under beech trees is so open, as if it were a playground for fairies. (The lack of underbrush is due in part to the high lignin content of beech leaves. Lignin is the substance in a plant that lends it rigidity and resists rot. Beech leaves decompose more slowly than the leaves of other trees, and as they pile up under the tree, the layer of dead leaves inhibits the growth of other plants.)

Large beech (right of the stream) in Beecher Hills-Lionel Hampton Nature Preserve

It’s the extraordinary way that light filters through a beech tree.

A beech tree I came across in St. Louis several years ago

It’s the way that beech trees hold on to their crinkly brown leaves in winter.

My beech tree after a rare snowfall in Atlanta

In a winter forest, a beech tree can be a work of art, as this amazing drone photograph of a beech tree in Fernbank Forest readily attests.

‘American Beech, winter’ by Peter Essick

And then there’s how in the spring beech leaves emerge sheathed in coppery brown.

And then all through spring into summer and fall, the light just keeps sifting through the tree.

My beech in November

Of course beeches are famous for collecting initials and declarations of love and other carvings, and to be honest, though I’m supposed to hate that people do that, I really don’t.

A beech I admired in New York City’s Central Park

So, yes, I do love American beech trees.

But this is not a post about how lovely beeches are. Instead, by titling this post “The Poetry of Trees,” I mean to indicate how trees, if we let them, can perform something like the same function that a good poem, novel, painting, song, or other creative work can perform for us.

Go back to the picture of our beech:

In the circle, you may be able to see that in 2018, I removed a large, low branch. The arrow points to something you can’t see, which is a manhole providing access to a sanitary sewer line that runs along and then across our property.

(1) I planted my wife’s beech too close to the manhole. When the city’s watershed department comes to do repair work on that manhole — an event that is seemingly inevitable at some point in time — they may end up having to destroy this tree.

(2) I wounded my wife’s beech perhaps more than I should have, pruning that large branch right at the trunk — what was I thinking? — and thereby creating an avenue by which fungi have entered the tree and begun to rot it.

This is a post about coming to terms with one’s mistakes in life, and how trees can instruct and inspire us to make peace with them.

Because look at what my beech tree has been doing since I lopped off that branch:

That’s right, it’s not healing itself — there is no “repairing,” no “regenerating,” no “re-” anything in trees when it comes to decayed wood — but it is dealing with it. For above, below, and behind this open wound, the tree has erected barriers to prevent the fungi from spreading throughout it, and as you can see, it’s also gradually closing off the opening.

Compartmentalization of decay in trees (CODIT). Photo credit: Shigo and Dudzik
Compartmentalization of decay in trees (CODIT)

It’s a bit like a scar on skin: we always have that reminder of the time we stuck a hand into a hedge trimmer, but it’s not like time stopped when that happened. We deal with it, and we move on.

Trees are not actually intelligent, but they sure seem to be. Our American beech will never not bear the scar of a dubious decision I made on its behalf in 2018, but it won’t hold it against me.

Photo credit: Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Above is a section of a Siberian larch (Larix sibirca) which began growing in 1637 and lived until 2011. Look at that gaping hole in the tree.

It dealt with it. It lived on. And on. And on.

That’s inspiring. Like a poem or painting can be.

One of the Abbot boys and an American beech near Emory University

The featured image above the title of this post is “Hide-and-Seek” (1942) by Pavel Tchelitchew at the Modern Museum of Art.

2 thoughts on “The Poetry of Trees”

  1. As always, both instructive and lyrical. I love the way beech trees hold onto their leaves in winter, making them so easy to identify. I had not thought about a tree’s self-protective mechanism, clearly illustrated by your photo series. Thanks Jim. I hope your beech survives into grand old age.

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