Beech Trees, Disease, Grief

In the 14 years we’ve lived here, we’ve come to know the beech like livestock, a caress, a pat on the side, a kind word, tall and grey and smooth and large and there, every time.

When I was in the woods today, I knew how to deal with raspberry canes. I knew the names of some things: spring beauty, trout lily.

A beech tree with beech bark disease gets coated in white pimples. And then a wind comes and these monoliths get snapped off, tossed aside from their trunk stump in a way that feels careless. The wind is just doing its job.

These trees, in the time prior to when their fatal disease found them, looked like the legs of giant elephants. They’d throw off their mast, to be eaten by deer. The deer population might lower without beechnuts available as feed. I’m grieving the lower beech population today.

They were our trail markers. At their bases our son hunted chanterelles, age two “Another one!” he’d say “Another one!”

I saw a giant beech tree dead but not yet snapped, and I kept imagining its snapping. I kept my distance despite no wind, and very little threat it would snap and find me. A ghost tree and its haunting broke me. I’d hug you once, but not today. I’ll not live to see a healthy beech this size. The disease is prolific. A pandemic just for beech. Me stumbling around weeping.

Researchers have bred beech bark resistant trees. There might be beech trees that can survive in the midst of the disease. Beech trees whose shade will cast on a landscape I will never know.

I study the dead leaves still hanging on the beech saplings. Papery, they are released when new buds form. The leaves are toothed, I learned this detail in Dendro, dendrology as a freshman in 1999. It was a distinct detail and it helped me learn the name and identity of this tree, beech.

Some of the beech leaves are on the ground, some still shimmer both in look and sound from their branches, on the wind. The buds are angular, long and sharp. Shiny, skinny, and tight before the opening of draped and folded leaves, in miniature. They harden as they lift their surface to the sun. Many of these saplings will reach a certain age and be taken down by the same fate as their elders.

They’ve lost their elders, these saplings. They’re not the first. We watched the emerald borer take down piles of diamond plated ash giants. Elm riddled with Dutch elm.

Years ago, a porcupine took up residence in one of the beech trees, the evidence of its contentedness laid plainly at its door. Beech provided mast for the deer, habitat for the porcupine, and a place for my memory. I’m marveling now at the beech tree of my memory. 

I’m turning the trail where the twisty one snapped off. It’s splintered stump points straight up, where its upper trunk once split into the boughs of a strong crown in the canopy. It held fast for years against the wind, and grew crooked in the face of it. This beech can no longer grow its strength in response to the wind. Or maybe it can. The splinters of its stump extend up and splay like fingers, a kind of push back against the wind that shaped it, a kind of resistance, even if it is by chance. Surely it's a question.

I want to collect my palms and pockets full of the leathery, the papery, and green beech leaves, press them into the pages of a book about the apocalypse I read one year ago, when we were all taking fresh steps into this pandemic. You see, their leaves are edged with beautiful serrations we call teeth. And I just don’t want to forget.