The Noble Beech
By Tamia Nelson
October 27, 2009
The sight of a soaring eagle. A leaping trout. The cry of a lonely loon. A brief glimpse of a distant, ambling bear. These are some of the things that make each trip unique, even if we've paddled the same stretch of water dozens of times before. But how much thought do we give to the trees that stand silent sentry on the shore as we pass by? Not enough, perhaps. After all, unless your travels carry you very far north indeed, it's easy to take trees for granted. I know. I once did. No longer, though.
It's not hard to see why we fall victim to this curious myopia, of course. Unlike a moose or a wolf or a heron, trees don't strut their stuff. They often awe, but they seldom exhilarate. We humans live our lives at a fast tempo. Like most other animals, we exist in the here and now, dancing a quickstep from cradle to grave. Trees belong to a very different order of things. They measure time in seasons, not days, and the astonishing annual transformation that poet Philip Larkin called "their yearly trick of looking new" is slowly and painstakingly "written down in rings of grain." This record takes a lot longer to register the passage of time than the second hand on a wristwatch.
The bottom line? We don't often make the sort of emotional connections with trees that we do with deer and salmon and hummingbirds. But this is just an accident of perspective. It doesn't make trees any less important to us. Try to imagine your favorite lake without its birch‑clad islands or pine‑sheltered coves. Not a very pretty picture, is it? That's why I'm going to take a closer look at the lives of these unobtrusive witnesses to our passing and repassing. And I'll begin my story with…
The Noble Beech
I admit that "noble" isn't a word that often finds its way to the tip of my tongue, let alone into one of these weekly columns, but in this instance it seems to fit, and since the writer of a no‑nonsense guidebook on my reference shelf also refers to the beech as a "noble tree," I'll take my chances. In any case, ever since mid‑September the forested hills overlooking The River have echoed with the sounds of busy animals hurrying through the freshly fallen leaves. It's harvest time. The mast crop — that's the synchronized yield of edible seeds, fruits, and nuts from trees and shrubs — varies from year to year. In some years the forest is especially generous, and this has been one of those good years. In particular, beechnuts are abundant. As the name suggests, these are the fruit of the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), a common sight throughout the eastern reaches of Canoe Country and beyond. (If you're interested, you'll find a distribution map at eFloras.org.)
Beechnuts, when and where they're available, are always a welcome addition to the winter stores of foraging forest animals like chipmunks, squirrels, and mice. Blue jays like beechnuts, too, bolting them down till their throat pouches can hold no more and then secreting them in ground caches and tree holes. Other backcountry dwellers prefer to store their food internally. Deer and bear comb the forest floor for beechnuts, accumulating fat reserves in anticipation of the leaner months to come. And that doesn't exhaust the list of eager eaters: beechnuts are also snapped up by raccoons, as well as turkeys, pheasants, and grouse, not to mention the occasional wood duck or nuthatch.
With all this gorging and foraging going on you'd think that no beechnut would escape the attention of some hungry creature, wouldn't you? But many do, and this unclaimed bounty overwinters under the snow, protected from ice and frost by a spiky seedcase and a fibrous husk. Then, come spring, it's released from cold storage, a ready reserve of food for birds and other animals during the "starving time" between winter's end and the first flush of new growth. Perhaps you've seen these hardy seeds along a favorite trail. No? Well, that's not really a surprise. Beechnuts aren't easy to spot on the forest floor, as this photo shows:
You're looking at the spiky seedcases here. The triangular nuts are concealed inside. Concealment is second nature to beechnuts, it seems. The seedcases darken over time, closely matching the deepening hue of the fallen leaves as weather and plummeting temperatures take their toll. Now here's a studio shot:
As you can see, each seedcase contains two nuts, though it's not unknown for a third to be found. Early in the season, the cases clasp their contents close, but as the autumn advances the barbed husk breaks open along four joins, allowing the ripe nuts to fall free.
And these plump nuts aren't the beech trees' only gift to wildlife. The buds that are destined to develop into new leaves in spring are a favorite fall food of both ruffed grouse and white‑tailed deer. Having tasted the buds myself, I can understand why. They're pleasantly sweet. Beechnuts are sweet, too, but they have a slightly astringent aftertaste. Roasting will remedy this, I'm told. I've never tried it, however. I have other food sources, after all. The deer, grouse, and squirrels don't.
OK. We've looked at the importance of beechnuts and beech buds in the food economy of the eastern woodlands. But this generosity doesn't come easy. Beech are a climax species, one of the key components of the aptly named beech‑birch‑maple‑hemlock (or "northern hardwood") forest. They take a long time to mature. It can be forty years before a beech tree produces its first crop of nuts, though it can then live to a very great age, as much as 300 years — even more in some instances. The photo below shows a cross‑section of an 89‑year‑old beech, a youth cut down in its prime. And no, I didn't chop it down to get a picture. This tree, along with many other healthy beeches and maples, was identified as a "prospective risk" to hikers using one of the trails along The River. It was subsequently felled by a forestry contractor. Whatever danger this beech might have posed to passers‑by was never satisfactorily explained, but this much at least is certain: it will be forty years or more before another beech is ready to take its place in the forest food chain.
And in the meantime, autumn along The River will be a much hungrier season.
The smooth, almost silvery bark of the felled trees is characteristic of the beech, although young maples can easily be mistaken for beeches at a distance. Maples, too, often have a smooth, light‑gray bark. (The standing trees in the photo above are maples, in fact.) But the leaves can't be so readily confused. The beech leaf is elliptical, with a serrated edge and boldly defined ribs. As the photo below makes clear, beech leaves look nothing like the broad, lobed leaves of maples:
Misguided forest management practices aren't the only threat faced by the American beech, of course. The smooth bark is seen by some backcountry travelers as a irresistible invitation to leave a message for posterity, and while such carvings are usually limited to a name and date — or maybe two names enclosed in a heart — they can sometimes doom a tree, opening a doorway for fungal spores or other pathogens. Not all the graffiti artists are human, however. Beech bark also chronicles the ups and downs in the lives of many clawed mammals, as in this example:
Luckily, the contract tree‑cutters have confined their activities to only one area along The River. The beeches elsewhere continue to thrive undisturbed, their presence now marked by a blaze of golden‑yellow leaves.
If you want to capture this golden treasure, though, you have to move fast. In only a few weeks the gold will have been transmuted to base copper.
The dry, curled beech leaves may be drab, but they aren't quitters. They cling tenaciously to their parent limbs, holding on through the winter and into the following spring. Still, some beech leaves do fall quickly to earth. On late autumn and early winter rambles off‑trail, the parchment rustle of copper leaves is a poignant reminder of the lush, green woods of summer.
Happily, winter doesn't last forever. And once spring returns, even the diehard remnants of the copper company will surrender to the insistent tug of gravity, forced out by fresh growth…
While other new life is nourished by the fallen leaves. Millipedes, slugs, and similar opportunistic detritivores abound in the duff. Wildflowers, too, flourish in the rich soil of the forest floor. Here, for example, is a trout lily, pushing up through a faded carpet of beech leaves:
The duff also supports a diverse community of vertebrates, from ground‑nesting birds to garter snakes.
Clearly, the American beech deserves its place at the heart of the northern hardwood forest. And an individual tree's contributions don't end with its death. What good is a dead tree? Just ask the woodpecker who carved this hole in a still‑standing dead beech:
Before long the cavity will be deepened and extended. In time, perhaps a chickadee will call it home, or a squirrel, or even a raccoon. Dead trees can be very lively places, indeed. Then, when they fall victim to some summer storm or autumn blast and topple down, they slowly return to the soil from which they sprang.
I'm not much given to flights of fancy, but as I walk through the woods along The River, I sometimes feel as if the beeches are taking note of my passage. Maybe it's the eye‑shaped scars that frequently form in their bark. Or maybe it's something else. Whatever the explanation, I hope that beeches will continue to stand watch along Canoe Country waterways for many years to come, marking the comings and goings of canoeists, kayakers, and other backcountry travelers — and chronicling all that they experience over their long lives in "rings of grain" for future wanderers to ponder over.
Beech trees aren't exactly popular with forest managers. The American beech has become, in one writer's words, a "controversial" species. But that writer didn't ask the opinion of the animals who were out gathering beechnuts along The River on one recent drizzly autumn day. If he had, he'd probably have chosen a different word. "Invaluable," maybe. And that's the word I'd use, too. The guidebook entry I quoted at the start of this column got it about right, I think. The beech is a noble tree. Which is why I return to The River to walk among the beeches every time I get the chance.
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