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On The Trail: Beech blowback


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

One never knows when a topic tossed into the city square for public discussion will attract interest and spur feedback like last week’s subject — beech trees — did.

Who knows why? It did.

Among the folks of both genders chiming in were a card-carrying historian/archaeologist, a couple of foresters — one a photographer and poet on the side — a fiery conservation activist, and a couple of longtime hilltown readers, both natives who grew up around and explored woods containing big old beech trees and distinctive, elephant-skinned beech groves suitable for framed display on canvas.

The first comment came from historian/archaeologist friend Peter A. Thomas, who was at the time putting the finishing touches on his late 98-year-old father’s tasteful memorial service I attended Saturday at the closed congregational church of my South Deerfield ancestors. Addressing what I had written about my association of beech trees with upland landscapes, he said he too thought of beeches as uplands trees because he often encountered them brightening high, lonely Vermont ridges during his days as head of the archaeology department at the University of Vermont. However, he said, late Yale forest ecologist Tom Siccama — who earned a doctorate from UVM in 1967 and taught in Yale’s prestigious School of Forestry & Environmental Studies for 40 years — had, during extensive deed research of ancient Green Mountain State parcels, discovered many beech trees noted as markers in lowland boundary descriptions. So, beeches are not upland trees in the historical narrative.

Although I could not find the specific report Thomas referred to, likely Siccama’s UVM dissertation, I was able to pull up more than enough online Siccama references to beech trees to accept my friend’s recollection as fact. Not only that, but the online journey gave me a handle on the postglacial distribution and abundance of beech trees in the Northeastern archaeological record. Beeches first appear in the North American pollen records 24,000 years ago in the Southeast before creeping north all the way to the Great Lakes and Quebec as early as 7,000 years ago. By 1800, beech trees were as ubiquitous and common in the Northeastern forests as they are today.

The local ubiquity of beech trees is clear when reading email commentary by female readers Muriel Antes of Conway and Johanna Pratt of Ashfield, both of whom grew up around and held special reverence for them as youths. Antes, who grew up in Heath, remembers the woods of her farm “blessed with” beech groves, where she annually gathered tasty beechnuts.

“Any nuts that weren’t eaten on my way to the kitchen were incorporated by my mother into cakes and cookies,” she wrote.

As for Pratt, who cited three special beech trees in woods she deer-hunts and identified the beech as one of her “beloved trees,” she wrote that a salient memory takes her back to a chair-lift ride with her dad many years ago on an unnamed New Hampshire ski resort.

“It seems like 100 years ago that he pointed out a tall beech tree as we glided by and said, ‘See that bear tree?’” she wrote. “There were clear bear-claw hieroglyphics right up the side of that big beech tree. The scars displayed a crescent pattern where the bear had climbed the tree to harvest beechnuts, the front-paw marks distinct from the rear paws. Since then, I always search for bear-claw marks on beeches when hunting.”

Look, she and other should, because bear-claw marks on beeches are as common as the beech trees they find their way to. Why? Well, I haven’t researched it but would guess it’s because beechnut meat soon dries into a tiny seed after falling to the ground, so it behooves bears to climb trees to forage this nut when the ripe smell fills the forest air. A friend speculated that perhaps the bear scratches are territorial like deer scrapes on the ground during rutting season. While I wouldn’t rule that possibility, it seems more likely that it’s the fruit that draws bears to beeches.

Before Pratt signed off, she shared one last interesting tidbit on beeches.

“Speaking of hunting,” she wrote, “I sometimes amuse myself on stand by biting the small, furled bud from a beech sapling. I like chewing them.”

So, I guess that habit plus Antes’ previous mention of beechnut-enhanced cookies and cakes answers the question of yet another random, unfamiliar Springfield correspondent, Ms. Maure Briggs-Carrington, who reached out with the question, “Are beechnuts edible for humans.” Yes, indeed, Maure. Just ask Antes and Pratt. Plus, anthropological records will tell you beechnuts were among the nuts gathered annually by Native American’s, joining white-oak acorns, chestnuts, butternuts, walnuts, hickories and hazel nuts.

The first forester to reach out was South Deerfield’s Michael Mauri, who sent a tiny book with a long, narrow, color photograph of a high Williamsburg beech grove folded in half to make a front and back cover. Inside was this little poem. I do hope I’m not violating copyright laws:

black bear

the one who—is like us, the one who—bends small trees in the forest

Accompanying the little booklet was a short note to say we had met once in the Montague Book Mill parking lot, where we looked at the topo map of a favorite ridge of mine named Walnut, where, incidentally, there are beech and hickories as well, not to mention an amazing balanced rock and ancient sacred landscape. He didn’t know the glacial erratic. Maybe someday we’ll take a hike and ponder the possibilities. Perhaps we’ll even hike a bit farther south along the spine to a seven-trunked shagbark hickory tree, the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else. I’m sure a poem could be written about this high, lonesome anomaly, which could even be a non-conformist in the mold of Perez Bardwell, the 18th century hardscrabble rebel who lived below.

The other forester who came this way did so indirectly, through a local political gadfly with a deadly stinger. This source called last week, then emailed me a recent state Department of Conservation and Recreation-proposal laying out a logging project targeted for the 280-acre Garnet Hill section of Peru State Forest. The initiative is aimed at ridding the plot of red pine scale and beech bark disease by aggressive logging and subsequent controlled forest-regeneration projects, including “chemical control of beech … to ensure other desirable native species can emerge after the harvest.”

Although it’s too late to delve into this complicated issue this week, it’s never too early to share the critical assessment of forester Michael J. Kellett, executive director of “Restore: The North Woods.” Founded in 1992 anf headquartered in Weston, this conservation group’s goal is “to go beyond endless damage control to begin restoring the health of entire landscapes.”

Kellett has reviewed the proposed Peru State Forest logging plan and gives it a disgusted thumbs-down.

“What a disgrace,” he writes. “… This is a plan aimed solely at cutting down as many big trees as possible before they lose their commercial value.

“The so-called forest insect and disease threats are vastly overblown. They will kill some trees, but that is something that happens in all natural forests. Logging will do nothing to mitigate or stop insects and disease, and it will probably make them worse.

“… Nothing short of a full ban on logging will save these state forest lands from liquidation.”

Touche!

Obviously, there will be those who’ll come forward attempting to destroy this man’s credibility by calling him a tree-hugging kook or worse. But a wise observer doesn’t just dismiss such criticism out of hand. No. A sage listens and probes and researches and learns, and maybe, just maybe, discovers that what has been said is legit, not wild, radical-extremist blabber.

Stay tuned. What’s happening in Peru is lurking in a state forest near you. They call it forest-management policy.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.