Back To The Beech Grove

I have for many decades been fascinated by beech trees and beech stands — from the mature, elephant-skinned sentries standing tall and broad, to their understory infants immediately below, to the empty, thorny husks and the small, three-sided nuts they contain for posterity — all interesting and, when you probe the depths, perplexing in many ways.

I can’t say for sure where or when I encountered my first beech tree, so distinctive and regal. The reason for this uncertainty is that I had probably passed many during childhood woodland wanderings without knowing what they were or what role they served in the ecosystem. Did I first learn to recognize these aristocratic, nut-bearing hardwoods while cutting transit-assisted line with a machete to run traverse as a teenaged member of land-surveying crews? Or was it scouting during my early days of deer and turkey hunting? Truthfully, I cannot recall, but probably both woodland activities ultimately contributed to my ability to identify these trees, which stand out no matter where you find them.

Although I generally associate beech stands with high, hardwood ridges, where deer and bears and turkeys and squirrels and jays and you name it enthusiastically forage their fall nuts, these trees also flourish in the lowlands. I pass such tall, stately, lowland beeches daily, randomly spaced atop an escarpment overlooking a bottomland Green River-side meadow, with many infant trees below in the understory. Mixed with oaks, black cherries, poplars, soft maples, sycamores, and hickories, the mast producers attract a wide array of critters during the fruiting season and beyond.

I have in the past five years learned to value beech as an excellent heating fuel. More and more of it is showing up in the cordwood mix due to a bark-blemishing disease that’s taking its toll on beeches across the Northeast. And while I hate the thought of harvesting perfectly healthy beech trees for firewood, it isn’t necessary these days. Instead they’re culling diseased trees from the forest, hoping to protect healthy specimens from disease. Whether this strategy works remains to be seen. But, oh, how sad it would be to watch beech trees go the way of the American chestnut and American elm, both formerly prolific in these parts, now gone.

Beech trees and beechnuts are not a new subject for this column. I have in the past discussed the overwhelming likelihood that beech nuts picked off the forest floor will be hollow when cracking open and inspecting them out of curiosity. I have personally probed many November beechnuts through massive upland beech groves for nearly two generations and, despite an understory overwhelmed with infant beech trees of various short heights, I routinely find not a one with meat in it. Upon delving into this mystery a little deeper, reading, observing, exposing the quandary to the light of public feedback, I have come to the conclusion that the hollow nuts are not barren. No, what appears to happen is that, once dropped by wind- or rainstorms, the yellowish-white fruit inside the thin brown shell soon shrivels to a tiny, dark-brown seed tucked neatly and inconspicuously into the base. At first glance, the interior appears to be empty, a hollow, barren tomb. But, in fact, these nuts are not empty. Upon close inspection, the tiny seed is indeed visible. That, I’d say, is what produces all the infant trees you see, even though I was once told by a forester that some of the immature stock sprouts off the roots of adults. So, that too may indeed be the case.

Recent reading of German author/forester Peter Wohlleban’s best-selling “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate” has provided me new insight into beech and many other trees of the forest. To get anything out of this groundbreaking New York Times bestseller, published in German in 2015 and a year later in English, one must put aside that all too familiar Christian lens.

“What?” demand devout Christian readers. “Trees feeling and communicating? Do you need your head examined?”

Well, no, actually there’s no need for a shrink. To grasp such non-Western Civilization concepts, one must clear dogmatic fog and view the world with an open mind, one that leaves room for fresh new paths to discovery and truth. The first time I read about trees communicating to fend off disease or insects, survive dangerous drought, and propagate where it ain’t easy was in botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants.” It’s well worth reading if you want a different twist on how nature works in a cooperative plant community. The piece that introduced me to tree communication through intermingled root systems, wind and pheromones was titled “The Council of Pecans,” presented as a “Braiding Sweetgrass” excerpt in the literary “Orion” magazine, the standard bearer of contemporary environmental writing. Then, by chance, I caught mention of Wohlleben, found his book online, knew it was of the same deep-ecology school as Kimmerer’s, and promptly purchased it.

There is much to learn from Wohlleben, but here and now let’s focus on the topic at hand: that is beech trees, for which he has affinity and explores in depth. Most interesting from my perspective is his discussion of how to age beech-grove infants shaded in the understory by vast adult crowns that quite intentionally inhibit growth of their young. Sources such as “The Sibley Guide to Trees” and many others will tell you beech trees grow slowly, so the wood is not commercially important. But that description in no way prepares the reader for Wohlleben’s discovery that the infant saplings of the grove ranging from three to seven feet tall are — brace yourself — 80 years old.

Wow! Who would have ever guessed it? I have seen many such little beeches in my rambles and have always assumed them to be in the 5- to 10-year-old class. Not so, according to Wohlleben, who’s diligently observed and studied beech trees for many years and ages them by counting tiny modules on their branches. He says these understory juveniles live in the forest as coddled children protected by their mothers for many years. When the moment arrives, due to a lightning strike, tornado or some other event that fells large trees, these children and are ready, willing and able to flourish, having been protected and nurtured in summer adult shade for decades. Given a clear, newfound path to direct rays of hot sunlight, these arrested-development kids are ready to take off, their growth accelerating dramatically to fill the gaping hole carved into the forest’s canopy.

When I walk my dogs daily past a few clusters of these immature beech trees, their dry, light brown leaves still intact, I must admit to holding new reverence for a tree I have always favored. Who would have guessed that these head-high saplings are older than me, and I’m no spring chicken?

Ah, for the wonders of nature, not to mention the refreshing, holistic perspective of deep ecologists, still unfortunately viewed by mainstream commentators as “radicals” or, better yet, “tree-huggers.”  Well, we all know the saying that starts “Sticks and stones will break my bones,” which fits this scenario snugly. The fact is that neither pejorative would insult me personally. I’d just consider the source and invite   the razor-sharp harpoon as platinum praise.

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