American Holly, American Beech, American Graffiti

The gorgeous American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) has long been a favorite canvas for young couples in love and other graffiti artists.  My favorite nearby park is filled with beeches, tulip poplars, red oaks, and American hollies.  At this time of year, the beeches call attention to themselves, with their parchment leaves still clinging on, their smooth gray bark, and of course — on many of them — hearts and initials adorning the bottom six feet of trunk. 

F. grandifolia, a favorite tree, along with one of my favorite H. sapiens

I’m of two minds about the carvings.  On the one hand, I’m sure it’s not good for the tree, and I hate to think of some capricious teenaged crush endangering the life of a tree as grand and venerable as an American Beech.  On the other hand, it’s fascinating to examine the carvings and imagine who put them there, and to imagine where they are now.
What compels us to imprint ourselves upon these trees?  When I was thirteen I carved my initials into the trunk of an American Holly — another thin-barked beauty —  that grew in the corner of our backyard.  It was a tree I’d climbed a lot as a kid (yes, it was poky) and I remember feeling the urge to leave my mark on it in some way.  With an old nail, I carefully scratched MAG ’84 into the silver gray bark,  and then, because that didn’t seem adequate, I added some symbols underneath.  I specifically recall hoping that those symbols (a dollar sign, a treble clef, and a weird looking Z) would appear cryptic to whomever stumbled upon the tree in the future.  I’d recently visited Roanoke Island, I think, and had been fascinated by the story of Croatoan. The people who discovered my holly would sit and ponder, who was this MAG, and where did she go?
There’s something fascinating about stumbling upon old graffiti.  On a childhood trip to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, my dad and I were intrigued by the “historical graffiti” that still remains on the cavern walls.  The young folks who explored the cave in the 19th century wanted to be remembered, too.  They wrote their names, initials, and dates, as we do today, only they did it with candle soot:

Historical graffiti at Mammoth Cave

I imagine these young spelunkers (in my mind they are always young), their faces illuminated by candlelight, wondering if the cave-hoppers of the future would encounter their markings twenty, fifty, a thousand years hence.  I guess there is something inside of us — even in youth — that senses our mortality, that understands that we’re just passing through, and so we seek out the things we know will outlive us — trees, boulders, concrete sound barriers — and imprint upon them a bit of ourselves to show that we were here.
American Beech trees can live 300-400 years.  That’s a pretty good legacy to leave behind, if the tree makes it. 
When I was in college, my dad cut down the American Holly that held my initials.  I don’t remember why he got rid of it — whether it was dying or overgrown or what —  but I do remember feeling sad about it.  One day the big tree was there, the next it was cut into neat pieces, stacked on the carport for firewood.  Future generations wouldn’t be ruminating over my carving after all. 
After breaking the bad news to me about the lost holly, my dad presented me with a section of its trunk, about six inches tall.  While sawing up the tree, he had carefully preserved the piece that I’d carved seven years earlier.  I hadn’t climbed the tree in all that time, in fact I’d hardly set foot in the backyard, but he saved that piece for me.   
Dad understood about favorite trees and legacy-leaving.
I’ve kept that bit of holly trunk for all these years.  Today, it sits on my dresser, next to a picture of my dad, and one of my son.

21 thoughts on “American Holly, American Beech, American Graffiti

  1. Mary!
    What a beautiful post! It is so appropriate for the end of the year, and you develop the idea with your usual warmth, humor and attention to detail. Is the first picture of you? I thought you were blonde, for some reason…love the crab hat, BTW! And what a tremendous artifact and gift from your dad that you can treasure for years and years!

    Some day I will have to blog about a couple of discoveries I made while going through my parents’ effects this past summer.

    Happy New Year to you and yours!

    • Thanks, Lord Verner! Ha, that is not me in the photo — it’s my stepdaughter — she’s half my age and about half my weight, so it’s kind of cool to be mistaken for her. She’s really proud of that lobster hat.

      Would love to read about what you found in the attic!

  2. Mary,

    A well-written, compelling piece. I think I carved my own hieroglyphics in Beeches as an adolescent, hoping that anthropologists 200 years from now would remark in wonder at the brilliance of the markings–“the peak of culture” they would say. I think a developer bulldozed that forest for a strip mall, robbing future generations of great PhD dissertations.

    Your blog continues to sizzle! I look forward to every post.

    • Thanks, Thomas. Maybe you could incorporate some heiroglypics into your landscape architecture projects! Or you could spec some custom stone that has your name etched into it — in really huge letters — so there would be no mistaking who the genius behind the design is!

  3. Awwww. Lovely, heart touching post. I need to get a nail and go outside and find a tree that will remember me. First I have to find a trunk that the bucks haven’t marked first.

  4. Great post that stirs fond memories. Near Gunnison Colorado (I think…too) a mathematical, infatuation statement was left on an unsuspecting quaking aspen tree some 40 years ago. Not sure if it’s guilt or curiosity, but I’ve often wondered over the years (more pondering of late since the big 5-0 has arrived), whether that trunk still has my first-girlfiend Kathy and I in love. Thanks.

  5. I’ve never had a tree with bark smooth enough for me to leave my mark on it, but you make me wish that I had! Maybe I need to plant one or two in the yard – if not for me, then for my grandkids, if and when we have any. (Landscape designers, take note! This sounds like a must for residential designs!)

  6. Happy New Year Mary.

    As always I enjoyed your blog, it brought back happy memories of pressing a family cat’s (Stringbean) into the new concrete of a porch. This last summer I was able to point it out to the new owners and tell them all about how she used to meet school kids every morning and escort them across the street.
    I am going to remember Gaia’s suggestion and find ways of incorporating names into the gardens of new homeowners or parents.
    Peace, Sandy

    • Mary, before you call the SPCA that was supposed to be the family cat’s paw print not the whole cat. I knew something looked off about the sentence, but it didn’t hit me until after I hit send.

  7. Mary,

    I don’t mean any disrespect, but I’ve always thought carving initials into tree bark is the same as tattooing a stranger on their forehead. In your own backyard, it’s your tree so you can do with it whatever you want, but trees in public spaces are there for everyone’s enjoyment. I’m always saddened to see a beautiful tree irreparably scarred by carvings.

    • Paul, for some reason initials carved into trees doesn’t bother me as much as spray paint on fences, even in public places. I’m not sure why one just looks ugly to me and the other seems kind of charming, but there you go. I totally get your position, though. Both are certainly graffiti.

      • I guess I take more offense to tree carving than other types of graffiti because it’s so permanent. Paint fades and flakes off over time or could even be painted over, but tree carvings can last hundreds of years. At least we both love the trees 🙂

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