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A late winter love affair

It was an unexpected encounter, as they often are, and it left me breathless.  Like encountering a love letter that I had read before, but I finally understood its message.  And the message struck a deep chord: “I have always been here.”

 


My husband was out of town, and I was making life work with the help of babysitters and understanding colleagues.  After a week of muddling through, it was Friday afternoon.  Saturday was to be a work day, an extended morning of interviews with students with the help of a thoughtful and supportive committee.  So while both children were in the care of school and babysitter, I decided to do something for me.

 

It was an unseasonably warm day for February – around 65 degrees – and my heart and body wanted to get out under the swiftly moving clouds in the springtime feel.  A day for cheating: cheating winter, cheating schedules and routines.  A day for wild freedom, if even for an hour.

 

I ran up to the Moraine Nature Preserve north of Valparaiso – there would be enough time for a quickie of a hike and I would still be able to get back in time for school pickup.  There were other cars in the small gravel parking lot when I arrived.  More people than I were playing hooky at 2 PM. 

 

I didn’t waste time as I locked the car, zipped up my jacket, and started onto the root-knotted trail.  The encounter happened about 50 meters in.  I looked up and my breath caught in my throat.  Dozens of sapling-sized trees, spread throughout the forest, were waving white-flag leaves at eye level, 360 degrees around me. 

 

Despite the warm day, the forest was winter-bare.  No undergrowth, no leaves on the trees.  The understory was wide open, except for these white and light-tan signals – were they ghosts?  They seemed to want to get my attention, and they were successful.  I pulled out the Seek app on my phone and trained the camera lens on a leafy branch a few steps off the trail to the right.  Seek did not hesitate to provide an ID: American Beech.

 




I had come to this trail knowing I would encounter one beech tree.  Further along the trail lies a large old individual, so tempting to hikers that its smooth bark is covered with carved initials, vulgar drawing and sayings, love notes, and well wishes.  It is this beech tree that I thought of when I read in the novel The Overstory, just two months ago, which tells of how the word “book” likely descended from the word “beech,” perhaps because humans can’t help but communicate in writing when they see its smooth bark.

 

It is the beech tree in that book that teaches dendrologist Patricia Westerford that trees do not, in fact, gain mass by soaking it up from the soil, but rather build themselves from the sun, the rain and the air itself.  This profound mystery of trees, how they function as ancient solar panels that we pass by every day without realizing their genius, how they survive as individuals for hundreds of years and as species for hundreds of thousands… it boggles the mind and puts me in my place as a quite limited creature.

 

That Friday afternoon on the trail, it hit me that the obvious beech tree is not alone.  The leaf-flags waving from the saplings marked each and every young beech, and there were dozens.  I looked around the forest in awe.  It was a whole community of beech trees, living in a community of other species of trees, unbeknownst to me despite dozens of hikes on this very trail. 

 

I looked around the understory with new eyes.  Beech trees of all sizes, their smooth bark a dead giveaway, stood like sentries in the ravine leading to the wetland area toward the back of the preserve.  I could identify at least a dozen large individuals just by turning around once at the base of the graffiti-beech.  Add to that the medium-sized trees and the saplings, and sheer power-in-numbers I felt was like stumbling on a secret meeting of wise elders.

 

And so began my late winter love affair with the American Beech.  These large stands of them do not exist everywhere, but they do seem to congregate in ravines not far from some source of water.  February lends itself to finding the ghost-saplings, and each one I see seems to be winking at me, letting me know that the beech trees are here and will not let me go.

 

A web search yields information on the marcescence, the persistence of the leaves that are normally shed.  In American beech, this happens on immature trees, as I can see out in the forest.  Why would a tree do this?  It is no accident – the hangers on can collect more snow than bare branches, thus bringing the tree more water when snow melts.  The leaves may deter predators such as deer from eating off the tender buds on the low-hanging branches of the immature individuals.  When the leaves finally do fall, they can provide compost nutrients in the spring, allowing the tree to outcompete species around it that have already used their composted leaves.   In other words, the marcescent leaves demonstrate the wisdom and strategy of the trees that know a lot more than most of us suspect.

 

A later hike at Meadowbrook Nature Preserve features another impressive stand of beech, complete with an interpretive sign that provides confirmation that my infatuation is not crazy, but rather worth marking for the benefit of others.  Beech trees love shade, the sign says, so they exist in mature forests where they can flourish under the established canopy (a trait they share with sugar maple, I later read).  They can reach 70 feet tall, and can live from 300-400 years, the sign says, and their mast years of beech nuts feed many species, including the now extinct passenger pigeon. 

 



Could the largest beech trees in these preserves be more than twice as old as the United States?  Even if they are only at middle age, it means they were babies when my ancestors lived an ocean away….

 

I am not exactly sure why knowing the beech trees are there makes me feel more loved.  Like any good love affair, I feel more alive for having experienced their mystery, for having been let in on their secrets.  Now, when I pass a group of them in a ravine, or see their leaf-flags waving at me, I wink back. 



Thank you for reading the New Backwater blog! I hope that you find ideas and perspectives here for making connections between the US and Latin America, for finding balance by leveraging tools of the past with lessons of the present, and for achieving transformation to make the world a better place. I'm trying to work on these things every day, and I'm grateful you're sharing that journey with me.

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