In an earlier post, about American beech, I included a shocking confession: I tend not to get all hot and bothered when I see that someone has carved letters or an image into the bark of a tree. I know it’s wrong to injure a tree willy-nilly, but I can’t help myself. It’s the romantic in me, and maybe also the professor of literature and history.
It goes back quite a ways, this practice of carving upon trees.
Do you know the German for “book”? It’s Buch. And the German for beech? Buche. How about that! You can almost see some would-be writer of long ago thinking, “Golly, it’s really hard to scratch my poems into these rocks. I need something soft and smooth. Hey, wait a minute …”
Okay, maybe beeches weren’t the first books per se, but you take my point. Something about beeches — peeling the bark from the trees to use as “paper”? — associates them at a very early date with writing.
In the Roman era of two millennia ago, Latin poets were always going on about some boy carving his beloved’s name into the bark of a tree. Here’s a bit from an ancient poem by Ovid. It’s styled as a letter from a nymph named Oenone to her ex-husband Paris. Paris is the Trojan prince, you remember, who ran off with the famous Helen, the Greek woman whose face launched a thousand ships (as well as a darn good book by a guy named Homer).
You carved beech trees and so preserved my name, and now I’m there for everyone to read — OENONE — etched by your knife. As the trunks of the beeches increase in size, so does my name! (Ovid, Heroides 5)
Closer to home, do you remember the story of the so-called Lost Colony?
It’s 1587, on Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina. Sir Walter Raleigh intends to establish the first permanent English settlement in North America. After the failure of the first attempt, he’s trying again. 91 men, 17 women, and 9 children are set ashore at the very edge of a vast continent. When their patron, John White, gets back three years later from a return trip to England, he finds . . . not a soul. They’ve disappeared! There are two clues only: the letters ‘CRO’ carved into a tree and the word ‘CROTOAN’ (the name of the people living upon what is now Hatteras Island) on one of the tree trunks used to construct the settlement’s palisade.
It sounds like the plot of a miniseries on Netflix, doesn’t it?
What about the original inhabitants of North America, did they carve trees? Of course they did. In addition to all the mundane stuff — Native American versions of grocery lists — there’s this story.
In 2006, a paleontologist named Rex Saint-Onge was wandering a remote area of San Luis Obispo, north of Los Angeles. A local mentioned the proximity of the “Scorpion Tree.” The carving on that tree, he reported, was thought to have been created by some cowboy maybe a century earlier. It wasn’t.
What Saint-Onge found was a ~400-year-old coast live oak, and he discovered the carving partially obscured by lichens on the north side of the tree. It is clearly an image created by the Native American Chumash people, not a cowboy. Here’s the kicker: he and others have now developed a theory (“Archaeoastronomical Implications of a Northern Chumash Arborglyph“) that the carving is a graphic and symbolic representation of Ursa Major and the North Star:
There is ethnographic information that suggests that the North Star was important in Chumash mythology and ritual behavior and in that of other native groups in Southern California, and that Ursa Major was known to some Chumash people as the guardian of the North Star. The uppermost part of the zoomorphic figure in the arborglyph bears a resemblance in outline to a conspicuous configuration of stars in Ursa Major. This observation has led us to suggest that the “starlike” design to the upper right of the crown of the zoomorphic figure may represent the North Star. As further support for this hypothesis, we point out that the arborglyph appears to be associated with the direction of north. It is situated on the north side of the old oak, and this tree is located due north of Lisamu’ (Morro Rock), an ethnographically documented shrine of importance to the Chumash and their neighbors.
Wow. Not your everyday “JA ❤️ JL” carving.
And then there’s the Autograph Tree at Coole Park in County Galway, Ireland. I was there maybe 15 years ago. Coole Park was the estate of Lady Gregory, co-founder of the Irish Literay Theatre and Abbey Theatre. When her literary friends visited her at Coole Park, she invited them to “sign” the copper beach in her garden with their initials. See if you can find the huge G B S of George Bernard Shaw.
The poet W. B. Yeats was there, too. It’s harder to pick out his initials, so I’ve made a stab at highlighting them for you.
So as for tree carvings, what it comes down to, I think, is that while I do regret that gouging a tree indisputably leads to some decay, and while I get that it’s presumptuous (and possibly illegal) for anyone to carve into the bark of a tree that he or she does not own, I also understand that human urge to leave a mark that says, “I’m gone now, but I was here once.”
The Greek poet Pindar wrote: ἐπάμεροι· τί δέ τις; τί δ᾿ οὔ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ / ἄνθρωπος. It means, “Creatures of a day. What is a someone, what is a no one? A person is a dream of a shadow” (G. Nagy translator, adapted).
But trees? An individual bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) can live for more than 5,000 years. A giant sequoia (Sequoia giganteum) can live 3,000 years. Baldcypresses (Taxodium distichum) live for more than 1,000 years. The oldest documented American beech is about 250 years old. If we include clonal trees, we can point to the so-called Jurupa Oak (a specimen of Palmer’s oak, Quercus palmeri) in California, which is more than 13,000 years old (the upper parts of the tree dying back and sprouting anew from the root system).
Trees are not creatures of a day, like we are. More like creatures of a century, even a millennium. That’s what draws us to them, I think, knife in hand. I don’t condone it, but I do understand it.