Let’s Go To The Beech Today!

No, I didn’t leave a blatantly obvious typo in the title — I’m referring to beech trees. Pardon my mischievous misdirection; I just can’t help myself sometimes.

The old saying “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” has a personal application for me; I tend to value trees which don’t grow around here, trees I’ve seen and been impressed by in other parts of this country and the world in general. Of course there are parks and arboretums where I can see certain favored species, but there is nothing like seeing a tree in its native habitat.

The closest arboretum to Quincy, Illinois is located some miles west of St. Louis, Missouri; it’s about one hundred and twenty miles from here and I’ve only visited it once. On that visit I became distracted by some very well-maintained prairie and savannah restorations and didn’t pay enough attention to the trees. I’ll get back to that arboretum one of these days.

Here in Quincy there are two parks which are in effect miniature arboretums: Washington Park downtown, the old town square, and Madison Park, a couple of miles east of the Mississippi. Sixty or seventy years ago there must have been some tree-fanciers in town, as these parks, especially the larger of the two, Madison Park, have quite a diverse collection of tree species.

I was surprised to see in both parks specimens of the rare leguminous tree known as the Yellow-wood Tree (Cladastris lutea). It’s not a particularly beautiful species, but it does have panicles of yellow flowers in the spring. I’ve never seen it in the wild. The few that once grew in Missouri were inundated and presumably died when Table Rock Lake and several other lakes in Southwest Missouri were created by damming the White River and its tributaries back in the early twentieth century. Back then water recreation always trumped biological diversity, which had few advocates during that era.

A couple of days ago I took off on my bike to water the garden, which is about a mile from here. As I passed Madison Park it occurred to me that I ought to a visit a couple of beech trees I had come to appreciate last winter and take some photographs.

Both beeches are the European species, Fagus sylvatica. For some reason our native beech, Fagus grandiflora, is seldom planted in this country. I’ve heard that the species is notoriously difficult to transplant.

Both beech species have smooth gray bark which, as the tree ages, is reminiscent of an elephant’s skin.

Henry Thoreau once wrote: “No tree has so fair a bole and so handsome an instep as the beech.”

His reference to the “instep” refers to the curving extensions from the base of a young beech’s trunk which dive beneath the surface to become roots.

The two trees I visited are superannuated specimens, wrinkly and scarred old beeches well past their prime. I took photos of my favorite of the two, then walked over to see a very decrepit weeping European beech, a tree on its last roots, so to speak. It was gone and nothing but a pathetically gnarled stump remained. I was sad to see it had been sawed down and fed to a chipper; my feelings were similar to those I’ve felt in the past when an elderly relative or friend had died and I realized how many stories and memories I’d never have the chance to hear.

I watered the garden and bicycled home. My photographs of the beech tree and stump were crappy and well worthy of deletion. I slung my tripod in its case over my shoulder and rode back to Madison Park to try again. Here are a few better photos I brought back:

Notice the ripples in the bark, and the whorls surrounding healed-over locations of past branches. Sometimes I have returned to this tree and suspected that the ripples in the bark had changed since my last visit, as if in the dead of night the tree had squirmed and found a more comfortable configuration. Surely not!

The photo above shows the other side of the beech’s trunk. Notice the prominent lightning scar, which has healed nicely.

The next photo is a closer view of an expanse of bark ripples, which resembles some barren landscape from the air, perhaps a lava field near a dormant volcano:

I noticed the immobile husks of a pair of cicadas clinging to the trunk of the beech. An out-of-focus playground can be seen in the background:

This last photo is a view of the stump of the weeping European beech, a sad sight:

I’ll conclude this account with another quote from Henry Thoreau, from Walden:

Instead of calling on some scholar, I paid many a visit to particular trees, of kinds which are rare in this neighborhood, standing far away in the middle of some pasture, or in the depths of a wood or swamp, or on a hilltop; such as … the beech, which has so neat a bole and beautifully lichen-painted, perfect in all its details, of which, excepting scattered specimens, I know but one small grove of sizable trees left in the township, supposed by some to have been planted by the [passenger] pigeons that were once baited with beechnuts near by; it is worth the while to see the silver grain sparkle when you split this wood…

Larry

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3 Comments

Filed under Natural History, Photos, Quincy

3 responses to “Let’s Go To The Beech Today!

  1. bev

    Nice photos – so glad that you returned to take a good set.

    Beech are such beautiful trees – the form, the bark, and the leaves. Unfortunately, up here in the north, they are not doing so well. In the west, I always think of how the Madrone is sort of the equivalent of the Beech – the trunk and limbs often seeming a little like the human form, and the skin being so smooth.

  2. Thanks, Bev!

    I’m also fond of madrone trees. I like not only the smooth skin-like bark but also the subtle reds, browns, and yellows of the bark coloration.

    I’ve sometimes wondered if a madrone could be grown inside in a large pot, perhaps as a bonsai tree. That would be a cool reminder of the West, wouldn’t it?

  3. Joan

    Fascinating pics and stories Larry. I sympathize with your having some trouble photographing trees…because the time of day that you have to water may not be the best time for photography. Love the close-up of the bark. Now I need to see what the leaves look like so I and see if there might be any near me.
    Well..so that is Thoreau’s Walden Pond. I have noticed a few writers of this time, could have used a little lesson on run-on sentences….but I guess if you are famous, you can break the rules with impunity. (grin)

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