The American Beech and the Conflict Between Nature and Society
“I don’t understand why when we destroy something created by man we call it vandalism, but when we destroy something by nature we call it progress.”
-Ed Begley Jr.
From the time I was old enough to wander alone, I have been fascinated with exploring forests. There is something to be said about walking around a forest with only trees, plants, animals, and other natural objects in view. Living in our present day society, it is also very enlightening to experience the simplicity that nature has to offer. When friends and I would camp for days in the complete isolation of nature, we gained a better perspective of the world we lived in and how our society so easily dismisses the significance of our natural environment. Through the readings and time spent studying our plot in Battle Park, our class Into The Woods has reiterated the focus and care with which I approach the natural world.
Because I have spent the majority of my life living in rural western North Carolina, coming to the Triangle to attend college was a different experience in terms of being able to experience nature. Much like Robert B. House said, “My first impression of Chapel Hill was trees.” (M. Dirr and B. Dirr 1), I too became enamored with the abundance and beauty of UNC’s trees while touring this campus as a rising high school senior. While the trees on UNC’s campus were great, there was still something missing. Fortunately for me, that longing was cured when I was assigned to live in the McIver residence hall on the northeast side of campus. Due to the location of my dorm, I was within easy walking distance to Battle Park and have, for over three years, used it as a sanctuary to exercise, reflect, and remind myself of home.
While Battle Park and exploring nature are important to me, there is an unfortunate trend in our society that dismisses its significance and disregards the harm our society is inflicting on the natural world. While this is not to say that our society is going out of its way to destroy nature, it’s just that we are not going out of our way to help nature. Along with this, we seem to have a misunderstanding that our actions, while seemingly small and insignificant on a grand scale, can build up to influence and cause other major problems.
Take, for example, my group’s plot in Battle Park. Located just a few feet north of Country Club Road, our plot has many representations of the conflict between society and nature. For instance, there have been a few times where I have found and picked up trash that has been littered from passing cars. Everything from candy wrappers to bottles of soda are easily thrown out of someone’s window with no regard for the consequences. While whoever decided to litter probably didn’t do it with purely malicious intent and, admittedly, a few wrappers and bottles are not going to immediately spell doom for Battle Park, it is very representative of the collective passiveness with which our society engages in actions such as these. For one person, engaging in a small act that damages nature may not seem like a big deal. But then another person does the same, and another, and another until our seemingly small and collective actions actually combine into one big problem. This is much like clear cutting forests or pumping greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere. While these actions in small doses probably are not terribly bad, it’s the thoughtless rate at which we do it over an extended period of time that contributes to a big problem. Clear cutting a plot of trees here and there may seem insignificant but eventually, if left unchecked, we may have no real forests left on Earth.
An important species of tree that is reflective of the conflict between nature and society is the American Beech. Scientific name Fagus grandifolia, the American Beech is a slow growth tree that can reach up to 100 feet in height and is usually larger than 3 feet in diameter (Kirkman, Brown, and Leopold 154). The most distinguishing characteristic of the American Beech is its smooth grayish bark that can easily be cut with a knife. From couples writing their initials (see inset) to hunters marking their paths, the American Beech’s bark has been carved throughout history. According to an article by Whit Bronaugh, the word “book” is derived from the Old English word bece which means beech. While most American Beeches survive the carvings of their bark, this act is representative of humans’ control of nature. Rather than living as a part of nature, we would much rather live in control of it. The carving of the American Beech can be seen as a stamp of ownership and dominance by wounding its skin. As Whit Bronaugh explained, while trees may survive the carvings, they may not survive their indignation toward humans (Bronaugh).
Because the wood of an American Beech is strong, it has been used extensively for the manufacturing of furniture, wooden cookware, paper, and barrels to age alcohol. Also, it is an excellent source of fuel wood, previously being used for charcoal. Along with the bark of the American Beech, the fruit has also been popular amongst the animal population. A yellowish-brown nut, the Beech-nut is an important source for squirrels, turkeys, and many other species of birds (Kirkman, Brown, and Leopold 155). The passenger pigeon often traveled to the Eastern seaboard in search of the fruits of the American Beech. One of the oldest American Beeches on record, located along Ohio’s Ashtabula River is over 200 years old and still has more growing to do. When this Beech was just starting to grow, there were roughly 3 billion passenger pigeons (one-third of the total bird population of North America) flying through the skies of America. But as Bronaugh explained, “By the time the champion beech had 130 growth rings, overhunting and the cutting of the beech forests had reduced the most abundant bird in North America to a memory” (Bronaugh). This instance in history is a troubling reminder of how humans have drastically affected the natural environment. In more ways than we know, our actions do have consequences if we do not think about them. In this case, the cutting of the American Beech was used for the purposes of industry, or what some would view as a byproduct of progress. Unfortunately, our society has such a desire to move forward and progress that we forget our roots and disregard the idea that humans should live as a member of nature, not as a master of it.
There is an abundance of issues relating to the natural world in which we live. And unfortunately, there is no single action that can fix all of the problems. But what seems to be the basis of these problems is the fact that our society is becoming increasingly removed from the natural world. We are so easily distracted by our technology and caught up in other activities that we forget the world in front of us. When people drive by our plot on Country Club Road, how many of them actually take a second to examine the beauty of its trees? How often do we take a break from society and completely immerse ourselves in nature by camping or taking a hike? Again, there is a problem in our mentality and a distance that have proven to be detrimental to nature. If our whole society could change our mentality then we would be taking a giant step in the right direction.
On a more positive note, there are people who have an intense desire to change the way we approach nature. Through their actions, we have botanical gardens, nature reserves, and regulatory agencies that serve as tools for the preservation of our earth. Because Battle Park has been such a significant place in my time here at Carolina, Into the Woods has provided me the opportunity to better understand Battle Park and appreciate it with peers who share the same enthusiasm. As one of many nature reserves throughout the world, I hope that Battle Park will serve as a reminder that the preservation of nature is of utmost importance if we want a future on this Earth. Nature was here long before humans and if we learn to conserve instead of destroy, we will coexist with it rather than perish by trying to control it. It is my hope that Battle Park will welcome and serve as an inspiration to other UNC students, faculty, and visitors in the same way it has for me all these years.
Class of 2014
Bronaugh, Whit. "The Biggest American Beech." American Forests 1992: 37. Academic OneFile. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.
Dirr, Michael, and Bonnie L. Dirr. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Noble Grove: A Walking Tour of Campus Trees. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2009. Print.
Kirkman, L. Katherine., Claud L. Brown, and Donald Joseph Leopold. Native Trees of the Southeast. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2007. Print.