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arborglyphs as epitaphs

Nearly every field guide to trees that I’ve seen lists carvings on the trunks of American Beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) as a field mark. In my urban area, virtually every beech tree is inscribed with carved initials and declarations of true love.  These inscriptions are known as arborglyphs.

While many hardwoods have smooth bark when young, the American Beech retains this wonderful, thin gray bark even when mature.  It makes an irresistable surface for carvers.  Beeches can live hundreds of years, reach heights over 80 feet, and have trunk diameters of greater than three feet.  On old trees, arborglyphs become interesting cultural artifacts.

Some of the most famous arborglyphs are the Basque Tree Carvings, made (on aspen trees) by immigrant shepherds in the American West as they supplied mutton to early mining camps.  In Georgia, there are beech trees reportedly carved by Cherokees along the Trail of Tears. Closer to home are beech trees carved in modern times as documented by Bev at Burning Silo.  In fact, her post inspired me to drag this one out of the draft folder, where it has languished since last June, when I photographed the magnificent beech shown above, in suburban Detroit.

The most stunning thing about this tree, aside from its two-foot-diameter trunk and beautiful spreading crown, was the complete lack of carvings. The tree, and several others only slightly smaller, but remarkably just as pristine, were in a new park.  It had once been farmland, long abandoned and reverted to woods.  A crumbling hearth was nearby, and here and there a rotting post with rusty barbed wire nailed to it.

The beech trees weren’t carved, but the municipality had done extensive carving of this property — excessively wide paths had been bulldozed everywhere through the woods, large clearings brush-hogged every few hundred yards, several enormous soccer fields, all expanses of green grass, constructed where the woods had been abruptly cleared, letting direct sunlight splash over previously dim forest floor. It was sickening.

I’m not opposed to parks, and prefer them to shopping centers or McMansion developments. However, there was land available for sports fields that would not have required deforestation. The idea that a “well-planned” nature park requires 15-foot-wide trails with dozens of shortcuts so nobody has to walk too far, and large openings and clearing of underbrush so it doesn’t look too scary, just blows me away.

I know when I return this summer, what is left of this forest will have a completely new character.  There was no invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, or garlic mustard, but I will see them becoming established along the soccer field and trail margins. Delicate native wildlflowers, accustomed to moist soil and filtered light, will not have survived in the sunlit-baked ground. Ground-nesting Ovenbirds and treetop Scarlet Tanagers, both of whom require large unbroken woods and which don’t respond favorably to disturbance, will be gone.

And that glorious beech, whose smooth gray bark had only known the soft caress of a Wood Thrush’s song, will be scarred with letters and dates, epitaphs memorializing to future generations just when the splendor of this forest died.

(Here’s the summer 2006 update.)

Filed in Field work, Natural history

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Aydin March 14, 2006, 8:59 am

    And don't forget the beech eyes:

  • John March 14, 2006, 9:53 am

    It makes me wonder what the decision-making process is when planning nature parks like this. Do planning boards consult anyone?

  • Trix March 14, 2006, 8:45 am

    As children we were always in awe of the clearly marked bear claws on beech trees, and made a sport of spotting them on our wanderings.

  • ScienceWoman March 14, 2006, 11:20 am

    What a good observation – but how incredibly sad.

  • pablo March 15, 2006, 3:54 pm

    A "nature" park near my house is being similarly civilized. There was a plan to widen and smooth even the most remote paths so that visitors who didn't care to walk could ride golf carts to the farthest corners of the park. The plan was shouted down, but "civilization" continues apace.

  • Gwyn March 16, 2006, 8:48 am

    As one who is compelled to make her own trails even through dense growth, I can't see this compulsion of park developers to make big paths through "nature." It's as if there is a need to make our outdoor experiences as simple as walking through a mall. Why is this?

  • tai haku March 18, 2006, 4:03 am

    the interesting thing about arborglyphs is it seems to be a weird part of human nature to make them. I've seen them on 4 continents in all sorts of languages (even kanji script).

    its sad that we have to leave our mark in such unnecessary ways both on trees and in sanitized nature experiences

  • Anonymous March 18, 2006, 11:55 am

    Nearly every American Beech in Princeton's Institute Woods has scribed into it "E=MC2"–'aborglyph' forgeries!

  • Nuthatch March 18, 2006, 12:09 pm

    John — I try to watch the notices of our state permitting organizations to see if there are any public comment periods coming up for development plans on properties on which I've done faunal surveys. Unfortunately, I can't catch them all, and unless a regulated wetland is involved, they don't even get posted. But I have been successful in getting some major plans altered because of my input. If anybody sees an opportunity to comment on a development plan, by all means do it. It can make a difference.

  • Cindy March 20, 2006, 10:47 pm

    I've never once etched anything into a tree- I do, however, unconsiously reach out to touch them as I move along within the woods, much in the way a friend would put their hand on your shoulder to say 'hi'.
    We are fortunate to have several very large American beech on our property and they have always been one of my favorite trees with their beautiful smooth gray bark.
    I'm sorry to hear of the 'nature walk'.. I've never viewed one yet that seemed to have nature in mind during construction. I can understand the need for special places where handicapped folks can also enjoy birds/flora.. guess I'm just thinking ahead into my rocking chair days..
    (just wheel me over there sonny, & leave me by the marsh wrens so I can watch the parents feed the young)