Sunday, September 23, 2007


Beeches and Bears

Cervantes, Don Quixote, I, 12 (tr. Walter Starkie):
Not far from here there is a place where there are some two dozen tall beeches, and every one of them has Marcela's name cut on its smooth bark, and above her name sometimes a crown is carved, as if her lover intended to declare more plainly still that Marcela wears and deserves the crown of all human beauty.
Edward Hoagland, The Ridge-Slope Fox and the Knife Thrower, in Heart's Desire (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), p. 27:
Beeches possess a smooth, grayish bark, almost water-colored, which cuts as easily as the bark of paper birch, but doesn't peel as birch bark does. These were the trees that lovers carved their initials on back in the days when lovers knew the properties of different trees. The beech's skin, as tender as it is, will keep its scars right into old age, which may mean fifty or one hundred years or more...
Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of North American Trees (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007), pp. 162-163:
And on the beech was written, probably, the first page of European literature. For, it is said the earliest Sanskrit characters were carved on strips of beech bark; the custom of inscribing the temptingly smooth boles of Beeches came to Europe with the Indo-European people who entered the continent from Asia. Indeed, our word "book" comes from the Anglo-Saxon boc, meaning a letter or character, which in turn derives from the Anglo-Saxon beece, for Beech. So if you find a big old Beech tree in the woods, hacked by some love-struck boy with the outline of a heart and his girl's initials in it, forgive him. He is but following a custom older than Shakespeare, who also records it:
O Rosalind! These trees shall be my books,
  And in their bark my thoughts I'll character;
That every eye which in this forest looks
  Shall see thy virtue witness'd everywhere.
And Virgil asks:
Or rather shall I the sad verse repeat
Which on the beech's bark I lately writ?
An epic line in pure American vein might have been read by all who passed that way, until about 1880, on a Beech tree on Carrol Creek, in Washington County, Tennessee, on the old stage road between Blountsville and Jonesboro.
D. Boone
Cilled a Bar
On Tree
In Year 1760
This tree fell in 1916, the scars of the inscription, but not the exact wording, still visible. It was 28 1/2 feet in girth, and 70 feet high, and its age was estimated by the Forest Service to be 365 years. So it began to grow in the year 1551, half a century before Orlando mooned about Rosalind in Arden, and was an ancient of two centuries when Daniel Boone inscribed his hunter's triumph on it.
Bears, who love to eat beech nuts, also leave the marks of their own writing on the trees, according to Hoagland (pp. 27-28):
[T]he bears, having the trees to themselves, and feeling impatient and proprietary, will climb sixty or eighty feet into the crown of the fall foliage to shake the limbs and hurry the harvest along. In doing so, they leave a ladderlike series of neat claw prints going up (going down, the bear will slide as if the tree were a firehouse pole), incised with a particular fingering that manages to create a personal image of the bear involved....These ladders up the beech tree have a logic to them and are precious for that. The bears are manlike and their marks manlike, and so carry an authority and resonance because they reach way back and yet one can ride forward on the memory of them for a good while.
Timothy Flint, The First White Man of the West: Life and Exploits of Col. Dan'l. Boone, the First Settler of Kentucky; Interspersed with Incidents in the Early Annals of the Country, chapter 5, tells the story of Daniel Boone's heroic fight against a bear that attacked him. If Boone's inscription on the beech tree was genuine and not a forgery, perhaps it recalls the less courageous killing of a bear that was simply climbing a beech tree in search of food. If so, we can date the inscription not only to the year (1760), but also to the time of year (fall).

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