Wounded heart

November 13, 2014 · 8 minute read

So if you find a big old beech tree in the woods, hacked by some love-struck boy with the outline of a heart and a girl’s initials in it, forgive him. He is but following a custom older than Shakespeare, who also records it:

O Rosalind!  These trees shall be my books,

And in their bark my thoughts I’ll character;

That every eye which in this forest looks

Shall see thy virtue witness’d everywhere.

Donald Peattie

Usually, by the time I start thinking about a new story to relate about life in the Richmond outdoors, a new one just falls into my lap. This is what happens when you spend a lot of time hanging out, or when you hang out outside enough. New stories or interesting observations fall right into your lap. One needs only momentary reflection to know the quality of life these experiences afford. The beauty of the Richmond forest is astounding. The deep texture you discover in yourself and your surroundings while roaming the Richmond forest is revelational. The spiritual growth you see in your children as they play in the Richmond forest is mesmerizing. It all satisfies. The Richmond forest satisfies.

If you spend much time out there, then you also recognize one irrefutable fact: The depth of your experience in nature is something that will never be replaced by digital images or cyberspace reproductions. For the full encounter one must go to the real space of all those other living things, living things that have populated this planet much longer than we have. One must go to raw places where the green earth exudes a very special exhale, and proper inhale requires a full range of human senses and sensibilities.

But this month as my self-imposed writing deadline came and passed, I found my lap strangely empty. Eventually a book happened to be there, and in this book I read some amazing things about the American Beech tree. In my favorite tree identification book, author Donald Peattie does more than catalogue the features of a tree that identify its species. Peattie recounts the significance a tree species has had in the life and thoughts of Americans since we first arrived on this continent. He paints a verbal portrait of the American beech using the same vocabulary one would use to characterize members of the human species. And much as it is with the more animated species, Peattie finds trees most beautiful in the way they color, support, and orient themselves to embrace the great light of their experience — more beautiful in poise than in part, so to speak.

In his “A history of North American Trees,” Peattie rescues American beech, or Fagus grandifolia,  from the scientific dissection table and returns it to the place it was first encountered — in our thoughts and feelings. Only  then does he relate the species to our need to survive, our need to create, and finally the great need that follows those others — our need to build.  His is an unparalleled account of the full interaction between the two most elite delegates from the respective kingdoms of Plant and Animal.

But while admiring his portrait of the American beech tree, I stumbled upon a highlight that seemed conspicuously embellished.  It is said, Peattie writes, that in the year 1916 an old American beech in Washington County, Tenessee fell to the ground, and that in the flesh of this tree one could still read the remnants of a “hunter’s triumphant” inscription:

D Boone

Cilled A Bar

On Tree

In Year 1760

Could this be possible?  On a tree that grows ever larger by exfoliating and replacing  its outer layer, how could it be possible that an inscription made on the outer surface is still visible 156 years after it was first scratched?  We’ve all seen professions of love scratched on beech trees, or confirmations that a person “was here” at a certain date, but how long do these inscriptions remain readable?  The answer to this question would require some hanging out, so I planned a little Richmond hike the next day for me and my daughter.

Brooke brought along one of her best friends, and the three of us dropped onto the Buttermilk trail from the 42nd street parking pullout and headed west into the steep accordion folds of the southern bank just east of the Boulevard Bridge. I was only taking a stab in the dark with this location, but it wasn’t long before our little thrust into the woods found its target.  I’ll let Peattie describe what we saw:

“Far down the aisles of the forest the Beech is identifiable by the gleam of its wondrously smooth bark, not furrowed even by extreme old age. Here it will be free of branches for full half its height, the sturdy boughs then gracefully down-sweeping. The gray bole has a further beauty in the way it flutes out at the base into strong feet, to the shallow, wide-spreading roots. And the luxuriant growth of mosses on the north side of such a tree, together with the mottling of lichens, add to the look it wears of wisdom and serenity.”

Yep. That’s the tree we saw stretching its long arms above a thick stand of yellowing paw paws. And that’s pretty much the impression it made. And this beech tree we found just south of the trail was not alone. Climbing higher and away from the trail we discovered a high ridge populated by a mature stand of beech, and each of these serene old cliff dwellers was densely tattooed with human scratchings to the height of the average reach of a human hand. As expected, the girls and I found an abundance of human addition formulas. One set of initials added to another, with the sum total represented as a heart shaped outline pierced by an arrow. I was at first surprised when the density and quality of inscriptions increased with increasing distance from the well trodden Buttermilk. Then I decided this was natural. It is in these secluded places that intimacy blossoms, and it is on fresh new ground that a young buck of a man claims territory by scratching out proof of his passing.

We found some old dates. Maybe a 1928.  Definitely a 1930, and a 1964. But most of what we found seemed to discredit the idea that a Daniel Boone inscription lasted 150 years. The older inscriptions, as I expected, expanded and distorted until many of them became amorphous hieroglyphs. Over time words had become unreadable shapes. Still, I was surprised that any evidence at all of these old inscriptions remained.

This longevity is possible, perhaps, because the Beech tree wears its heart just beneath a very thin film of skin or bark. By “heart” I mean that place just under a tree’s protective outer layer that is responsible for cell division and differentiation. Decisions are made here about when to slow down or grow faster, where to build extra strength, where to build barriers against decay, when to give up on a damaged section of branch or stem. In short, it’s in this cambium layer that decisions about how to live and grow are made. Growing out of the heart, the fresh cells created by the cambium are responsible for all nutrient and water circulation. It’s as good a place as any to call the heart of a tree.

Humans protect their heart by tucking it inside lungs and a cage of ribs. Most trees protect their heart with a corky outer layer. In some species these outer layers are so thick they can protect the cambium even when the forest is ablaze with fire. In most trees the bark is at least thick enough to protect the tree from extreme heat or cold, or from mild impact or abuse by people and animals. Not so with the beech. With its heart just under a thin grey sleeve, it is one of the fleshiest of trees. I suspect that the longevity of a human etching on the bole of a beech tree is partly dependent on the extent to which the carver’s edge dug into the tree’s heart.  Light scratches distort and disappear more quickly, perhaps, while deeper carvings become long-term tattoos. Maybe, when it is cut deeply enough, a beech tree carries the memory of its heart damage with it even as it grows and expands many years beyond the initial wound.

In the case of the famous Daniel Boone tree, it could merely be that once this tree was known and revered, the original inscription was periodically enhanced by any who did not want this wonderful living tablet of American lore to loose its message. My best guess, after a first-hand study of the old beech trees along Buttermilk Trail, is that as the name “Daniel Boone” began to be inked onto the pages of history books, other human hands followed an irresistible double urge. First, those who encountered this tree followed the urge to preserve the inscription. Second, these passersby followed the even stronger urge to replicate the hand motions of an American legend. With pocket knife in hand, I suspect subsequent generations invoked the spirit of the original hand. In their head: Daniel Boone stood in this very spot, and his hand made this exact motion, using a knife like this one,  this killer of “bars” carved these exact words. Plausible. Now I think maybe this famous wound on the heart of an old beech tree was over the years re-opened by the romantic souls of those to follow.

Using our fingers rather than a scratching edge, the girls and I likewise invoked the spirits of the many lovers and youthful wanderers who had stopped long enough in this old stand of beech trees above the Buttermilk to character their thoughts, feelings, and accomplishments.  In the end, I found no clear correspondence between the age of an inscription and its legibility.

And so with this mystery pleasantly unsolved, we dropped down to the immense boulder field adjacent to Mitchell’s Gut rapids to watch a fall day fade over the river. The quiet beauty and tumbling melody at river level was astounding. The late-day playfulness of my daughter and her best friend was mesmerizing.