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.
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:
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.