The plot along the Sourwood Loop I studied is not remarkable as compared to the rest of the woods that surround it. There are roughly 60 trees of reasonable size within the approximately 20 square yards of the plot, with a gentle downward slope from South to North that rolls first into a path, and then a creek that’s partially dammed up by rocks, debris, and litter. Most of the trees are Sourwoods, Red Maples, White Oaks, or Short Pines.
My personal favorites are the Beeches because of the string of associations I have made with that word – Beeches. First I think of Birch trees, because their smooth trunks remind me of the paper birches my grandparents used to have on their front lawn. Then I think of the Robert Frost poem of the same name. Next, I think of the Routledge volume of Robert Frost poems that was given to me one Christmas by a dear old friend of mine in a tiny mountain town halfway between Boone and Asheville. This in turn makes me think of those bucolic, fantastic things that most of us love: Christmas, a warm crackling fire, girls in pink Kashmir sweaters with their legs folded underneath them, Beer, Hemingway, a lamb roast so tender and juicy that it practically drips from the bone, butter-seared and bound together by an outer layer of warm brown fat, and topped with a dash of dark grin mint jelly. A freezing cold night. A full moon big in the sky.
How is it that a tree can evoke such vivid associations? After all, the Beeches on the Sourwood plot are not tall, old or remarkable as Beeches go, nor are they as interesting to look at as the Sourwoods with their twisted trunks that look like dinosaur spines, or as massive like the older White Oaks. What does it say that the most vivid associations I’ve made with the stand of four Beeches are with another tree altogether? Maybe I don’t have the proper appreciation for Beeches. After all, there are a number of rote facts I can give that describe the generic Beech Tree. They grow up to 80 feet tall and 2.5 feet wide. The leaves grow up to 5 inches long and are ovate with saw-toothed edges that stay green much longer than Red Maples and about as long as Sourwoods. The fruit they produce, the Beechnut, feeds both predators and prey that live in its vicinity. They live up to 300 years old. Yet these facts don’t exactly inspire me.
The larger question I am left asking myself is whether or not it is responsible to think of Beeches in my own way. After all, if the value of Beeches to me is only in the associations I draw from it, than what makes it more valuable than a wet cardboard box that reminds me of a cardboard box full of puppies?
On the one hand, you might say I need to appreciate the tree for what it is, because if I don’t love a thing for what it is than how could I act responsibly towards it? To put it more broadly, if I can’t respect a tree for what it is, than my attitude might be detrimental to nature as a whole. But I wonder if this wasn’t how Henry David Thoreau, or Aldo Leopold felt sometimes as they walked through their own woods, observing their own trees. I wonder if it isn’t more effective for those of us who can’t appreciate a simple tree, or those of us who think expansively too much, to simply stake a trees importance in something else entirely, something personal. And why not? Don’t we already make that same mental maneuver with other things of far greater personal importance? We imagine our pet dogs and cats as having complex human emotions so that we can try to love them more, when in reality they are all pretty dim. We eat cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving not because anyone actually likes Cranberry sauce, but because we can’t imagine a Thanksgiving without it. We hold on to trivial knick-knacks not for any real purpose they serve, but for the memories they invoke.
All of this is to say that after thinking about Birches and Beeches and girls in pink Kashmir sweaters for a long time, I think the association games we often play are not unappreciative of nature, but rather is the natural process most of us go through in changing something from “Other” to familiar. It is my personal belief that what inspired men like John Muir and Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold to know their woods so intimately was their ability to implant their own personal and deeply empathetic meaning into each of their trees. And I think it’s better that a Beech be mistaken for a Birch than a Beech not be appreciated at all.
Class of 2014
“American Beech” Accessed December 12, 2013. http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/american_beech.htm