News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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February 18, 2013

MIKE LUNSFORD: The ‘lovely gift’ of a beech tree …

EDITOR’S NOTE: We read his words and the imagery unfolds like an artwork unveiled. We laugh at his childhood antics — often recalling our own adventures — and gain perspective from his insights into human nature. We learn a little, too. Today’s column marks number 200 of “The Off Season” for Mike Lunsford. The Tribune-Star congratulates the writer on his accomplishment — he’s never missed a deadline since he began writing the column in 2005 — and we thank him.

This is not the season that I usually write of trees, for besides a few pin oaks that hang on to the most stubborn of leaves, my woods stand bare and dormant and cold right now. My trees are patiently awaiting the green of spring that I feel, for some reason, is to arrive a little earlier this year than is usual.

I have always believed that as a writer, I have to strike while the iron is hot, and so when I unearthed an article on the American beech tree as I excavated a messy desktop one morning last week, I knew then and there that I wanted to write about them.

Despite having a growing queue of writing ideas at the moment, the smooth, gray bark of the trees remained foremost in my mind, and so, beeches it shall be, and my thanks to Michael Homoya, the plant ecologist who wrote the piece, for the reminder.

There are just a few beech trees in my woods, but on my home ground, just 3 or 4 miles and a few decades south of here, I came to know them well. We had a gorgeous beech just a few feet from our front door, and across the road sat a huge old majestic specimen that marked the northernmost edge of my world. I suppose, however, that a beech that stood just off my grandfather’s driveway led me to love them the way I do. I have written of that particular tree before, for my dad and my grandfather wanted it cut down for years, and eventually, over my protest, they eventually got the job done. As much as I loved them both, their destructive persistence still irks me a bit most of a lifetime later.

Although I have a half-dozen handbooks on trees, Homoya’s article in the latest edition of “Outdoor Indiana” serves as both reference book and memoir. He wrote, “As monarchs of the forest, the American beech displays a presence that few other species can match.” Amen to that, for beeches often grow to reach 80 feet or more in height, and produce crowns that spread even wider than that. According to a big tree registry I sometimes thumb through, the biggest beech tree in Indiana (found in Vanderburgh County) is 91 feet tall. I am not exaggerating when I say that several of the beeches I recall from home were nearly as gigantic.

It is known that some beeches live for more than 400 years, and according to Homoya, they, along with the American chestnut, belong to the same plant family — Fagaceae — as do oaks. They are slow-growing trees, and although they can prosper just about anywhere, beeches tend to prefer “deep ravines, north-facing slopes, and better-drained portions of flatwoods.” Nearly every beech tree I can remember from my childhood roamings grew on hillsides, as do the few I have in my woods now, for all I have are hillsides on my property.

Beechwood is harvested commercially. It is hard and tightly grained, and it is often used in flooring and crates and even tool handles and artwork. It makes excellent charcoal, and the oil from beechnuts was once used in oil lamps. In fact, our ancestors, who seemed to use about anything and everything at their disposal as either medicines or meals (I once heard that pioneers ate roasted mice as a way to ward off illness), did so with everything the beech tree had to offer. They ate beechnuts raw, even cooked them and ground them into a sort of flour. Boiled beech leaves produced a poultice often used on everything from poison ivy to frostbite.  

According to Homoya, beech trees are important for the life of a forest. Most of the oldest become hollow in their declining years. These “cavities” supply shelter to several species of birds, and flying squirrels are known to favor them as homes, as well. When the tops of the trees break off, they create natural “chimneys” for chimney swifts that have been unable to settle in more modern digs. Hollow beech trunks near the ground are often nesting spots for turkey vultures.

Of course, I couldn’t have known any of those things when I played in and under the beeches we had, but I do stand guilty as charged when Homoya wrote, “A destructive minority of pocket-knife carriers insist on carving up [the] trunks. …” My name, crudely and crookedly adorns the beech closest to our old place, something I’ve been reminded of by the folks who now live there. My grandfather had given me a pocket knife, so naturally I had to try it out. I don’t believe I’ve taken that knife, which I am saving for a grandchild, to more than a sassafras twig since.

Despite the fact that my grandfather was a fierce feller of trees, my Grandmother Blanche loved the beeches near our houses, and she rarely approved of her husband’s hastiness with a crosscut saw. She once confided in her diary, just minutes after my grandfather had “trimmed” her lilac bushes a little too aggressively: “I’d like to kick him in shins.” My family lived just a stone’s throw from my grandparents’ back door, and between us, among the red oaks and tulip poplars and persimmons, stood a wonderful pair of beech trees.  

After she died, barely 60, a poem my grandmother wrote was found in her tattered Bible. My sister re-discovered it just a month or two ago and sent it on to me, another reason why, I suppose, I needed to write about beech trees. She wrote:

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    March 12, 2010