The Story Tree

Rebecca Rolnick

Rebecca is a freshman at SUNY-ESF who majors in conservation biology and plans to minor in environmental writing and rhetoric. In the future she hopes to do work that protects biodiversity and connects people with nature.

“What is it about our need to tell stories, to leave a relic of our voice behind for the world? We speak, but sounds dissipate into the air, ephemeral as our own lives.”
“The tree is a living being, it is alive, like us, and maybe that makes it more meaningful to write on than dead paper. The living energy of the sap will continue to flow around these shared words.”

Even if you’ve never heard of dendrology, you can probably recognize a beech tree. They’re so often carved with dates, names, and initials inside hearts, that the markings can be used to identify them. The beech’s smooth, silvery bark makes it much easier to carve into than other trees, whose bark may be furrowed or bumpy or peeling.

What is it about our need to tell stories, to leave a relic of our voice behind for the world? We speak, but sounds dissipate into the air, ephemeral as our own lives. We want something more permanent to pass on to our descendants. To many, the beech seems perfectly suited for this task.

The traits of the beech are what make it appealing to us, but they stem from its own natural history and means of survival. The beech has a shallow root system, and its skin is paper-thin—it does not have the armor-like plating of the pine, or the thorns of the honey locust. By these counts, it would seem to be a delicate tree. But perhaps that is part of the reason why we are drawn to it. We do not have scales or fur or claws. When you really think about it, it is amazing that we survive. Like us, the beech is fragile. Yet it is strong. The beech endures. Even its leaves hang on through the winter, golden yellow and copper in the setting autumn sun.

The nuts are bristly and tough on the outside, but the inside is soft as velvet, protecting the seeds. Beech was a main source of food for the passenger pigeon, as illustrated by Audubon’s painting of the bird. It is thought that the destruction of beech forests is part of what contributed to their demise, in addition to all the shooting. If we lose a tree, we also lose the stories of every creature that depends on it. The paths of our intertwined cultural and natural histories are directed by how we perceive these trees around us.

A forest has meant many things to many peoples over the years; they have been viewed with all emotions, from reverence to fear to disgust. But the beech is a tree that inspires. “Judged by all that makes a tree noble–strength combined with grace, balance, longevity, hardiness, health—the Beech is all that we want a tree to be,” writes Donald Curloss Peattie. “It is a tree deep-rooted in the history of our people, in the new world and the old one, and figures beloved to us both in fable and in fact move under its ancient boughs.”

American beech is the only beech species native to North America. It is very similar to the European beech, so it would often remind settlers of home.

Like many of the secrets of Oakwood Cemetery, the beech tree is hidden in plain sight. Who would think, walking right on one of the main roads of the cemetery, in one of the more open and populated areas, that this secret place was right there? Its curtain of leaves hides it well. The branches hang, creeping towards the ground all around it. They look like vines, but are sturdy if you put your weight on them. The beech creates a wide circle of carpet from its own fallen leaves, nearly. It is a secret space, a safe space, a space of playfulness. A swing—no more than a piece of wood, painted red with “the red swing project” written in black—hangs from one of its inner branches, creating the feeling of a natural playground. This beech is certainly not the oldest, but many more graves must have been added to the cemetery around it since it was planted. It takes four friends to hug the trunk.

I trace the scars with my fingers on the bark—some old, scabbed over, almost black with new growth protruding out from under the peeling layers of the old. The newer ones, more fresh and orangey-brown. Some so new you can almost still see the remnants of sawdust. A few people have chosen to write on the tree with marker.

Why do they do this? I wondered. Do they have any respect for the tree? Does it matter if they do or not? I would never make a carving on a tree, I think instinctively. But then I realize: I do do that.

Paper, of course, is made from trees. Humans have inscribed their letters using many media over the centuries—stone and clay tablets, papyrus, parchment and animal skins, and now, electronics. But paper is still ubiquitous. Even the number two pencils required by school children to write on the paper are made of wood. Books fill our library shelves, the authors of centuries past conversing side by side with the voices of those still living. The documents that are really important to us, we still print out—the birth certificates and diplomas and medical records and wedding albums. When we want a story to last, we write on trees.

I am not advocating for people to carve onto beech. However, people have been writing on trees for millennia, and we are not likely to stop anytime soon. The question is, what are the stories we are telling now, about our relationship to trees, to the earth, to each other? What are the relics that we will leave behind, for our future kin to happen upon, and wonder?

I see and feel the arborglyphs that the people have left, wondering again how many months or years ago they touched this same spot. But who were they? Why did they make these marks? What were they feeling, where did they come from, where were they going, what was their story? But all I find is a relic, a mystery. Even if you write an entire book, and someone in the future reads it, they can never fully understand who you were and what you were feeling inside, all the complex variations of experiencing life that make us who we are. All stories will eventually be forgotten, as hard as we try to preserve them.

It seems like there are a lot of markings, but there are so many people who must have come here over time, and I know that the majority of them did not carve on the tree. Do the carvers realize the damage they are doing? Do all of our stories have to be scars? Could we ever learn to be content with telling our stories with our own voices, accepting that they will be swept away on the breeze, and leaving the beech to its own life without being marred by graffiti?

One of the oldest looking carvings on the side of the thick trunk reads, in a scratchy capital scrawl, “We are here to create, not merely to survive.” Perhaps, deep down, all that these carvers really felt the need to say was, “I was here. I exist.” A raw acknowledgement, the briefest nod of assurance, that their life happened. If that is the case, then they succeeded.

Maybe it’s not simply a medium for our own human story that we recognize in the tree.  The tree is a living being, it is alive, like us, and maybe that makes it more meaningful to write on than dead paper. The living energy of the sap will continue to flow around these shared words. And we know when we stand and gaze up in awe at the beech’s tall twisting branches, sunlight filtering through the green, early-autumn leaves, that the beech will long outlive us.

In an unexpected twist, I find that the beech has made an invisible mark on me, and I know that this is a place I will return to.

As long as this shared connection—this home—is preserved, the tree will be our courier to the future.


About the Author: