A fallen hero, and a new perspective (Beech Trees Part II)

img_7302Giants in our midst.  Alas, the foliage of that red-leaf beech is  getting a little thin on top…

So, the spring of 2016 turned into the summer, and a hot one at that. Humid, quite often, but simultaneously parched and dry and dusty. Which, so far as the elder beech trees of my fair city were concerned, put my Nervous Nellie radar in high gear.  Whatever the blight was that was eating away at them, the drought couldn’t be helping.

Whenever I saw the Mount Auburn arborists at work, I peppered them with worried questions. How are the beech trees doing? Had they come up with anything that might stabilize the large swaths of bark that were being eaten away? Were there trees that they had on their docket due for more than spraying and limb trimming? The one thing I couldn’t bring myself to ask if any of the Mt. Auburn beeches were scheduled for removal.

img_9300Honestly, this doesn’t really show what’s going on.  I know I’ve taken photos of the effects of the blight close up, but apparently I couldn’t bear to even have them sitting in my iCloud stash.  For better or worse, I kicked all those visuals into the great cyber-trash can.

* * * * *

If  any of the Mt. Auburn giant beeches were on the arborists’ chopping block, I knew which one would be #1 on their list: a massive European beech with a thick double trunk, molded together like co-joined twin saplings that decided to join forces a century ago. It was the tree that seemed like it should be the most impervious–double the strength and girth!–but clearly, it was suffering. It started with a branch here and there just a few years back, then whole swaths of one side were naked as wintertime when spring arrived and new foliage should be sprouting.  I knew this was the one that would soon disappear on me, like the long-declining companion to my kids’ library beech tree.

img_1696My beloved double beech tree, in better days.

Here’s the thing: when you become a regular visitor to a place like the Mt. Auburn, and you talk to the people who visit and work there on a regular basis–well, it turns out that people remember who you are and what you care most about. Between my chats with great horned owl lovers and groundskeepers and fundraisers,  I’ve turned into a bit of an MtAC Friend of the Big Trees insider. Which is why I got a frequent flier heads up—an advanced warning from the front office. Come visit this Sunday if you can, the message gently urged me. Our old friend, that heroic double-wide giant of a European Beech, was scheduled for removal, come Monday.

I was up north when the message came through, so there would be no final goodbyes before the chainsaws and chippers went to work.  Nevertheless, I was grateful for the message, grateful to know that when next I visited, I’d be visiting a big empty space.

Or so I thought.  I had a sneaking suspicion it might take more than one day to fell the behemoth beech, so I didn’t venture out to Mt. Auburn until late on Tuesday.  I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want to see the carnage in action.  I would be okay with an empty visage, after the fact.

What I got was this:

 img_6545A quitting time caravan of arborists, at the end of a long day.

Now this had me wondering what I’d find.  That big truck up front is hauling some sizeable limbs.  I didn’t know what I was hoping for, but I sped up to see what might be left.

Which was this:


My old friend was a shadow of its former self.  A sad work in progress.

As I approached, I couldn’t help but notice what a complicated job was being undertaken here.   A massive living thing, on the side of a hill, surrounded by stone memorials and consecrated grounds–trying to remove this creature from that environment took A-list experts.  As it turns out, the guys from Maltby and Company are top notch arborists, the folks you want to call in when you need the kind of workers who are as careful as archeologists and as strong as a team of Paul Bunyans.  No wonder they were taking their sweet time.  This was a big job that required a slow and steady approach.

Here’s the road they paved up the hill to put their enormous crane truck into place:

img_6592It was all about the protection.  They were as gentle as a giant slayer could be.

img_6555I suspect it took the better part of the first day to get this monstrous crane truck positioned.  Note the wooden lifters, the size of the tires, the proximity to Winslow Homer.  Yikes!

 img_6551-1The tag was still there, that day.  These tags are why I know any trees by their bark at all.

img_6584Two trunks, still standing tall.

* * * * *

I went back a few days later, to find just a stump remaining. It was a whole new experience, to put my feet exactly where that noble tree had lived out its life, seeing what it had seen.

img_7250Not the least of the arborists’ challenges was getting the roots out from around the stone markers this tree had grown up out of.

* * * * *

One month later, I attended a memorial service in Mt. Auburn’s Bigelow Chapel–remarkably, the very first such event I’d ever be to there.  It was a useful reminder as to why, exactly, this sacred place was consecrated in 1831.  It is, after all, a place to honor and remember those no longer with us, those we loved, those we celebrated in life and beyond.  After the service (side note: best recessional ever: Benny and the Jets!) and the spreading of ashes, my sweetheart and I split off from the family and friends and headed out on our own path.  One memorial event deserved another.  We went to see where the great double beech once was, but is no more.

img_9617And there, on a sunny knoll, a new patch of grass was being tended, where a new spot to view the world had emerged.  There was no more stump, no more evidence of the creature that was gone.

img_9624Unless you count rainbows from sprinklers as nature communicating with us.

img_9627And if you count new swaths of blue sky as a message from planet earth.

Which I most definitely count.

* * * * *


The passing of the giants in my midst (Beech Trees Part I)

IMG_6551Bless the people who have put the name tags on the trees of the Mt. Auburn Cemetery.  This is how I’ve become an above-average species identifier of these glorious creatures.

* * * * *

I’m not a stoic person, not by a long shot. But curiously, I’ve reached a point in my life where the things that would in my younger years have definitely triggered tears—deaths in the family, heartbreaking news from all corners of the globe, health scares at home and away, actual physical pain—those things may keep me awake at night, but they don’t make me weep these days. I can bluster my way through bad diagnoses, sad tidings, bee stings and root canals. How I evolved from the kindergartener who cried over a broken purple crayon to the stiff upper lip grownup in the face of adversity is inexplicable, to my mind anyhow.

Curiously, however, the things that do make me reach for the Kleenex are as predictable as ever—they’re just not the previous or obvious suspects. I’m pretty sure that nothing about school concerts made me cry when I was young, but these days? Put some singing children in my midst and watch me leak. I cry at parades, at carnivals, at veterans saluting flags, at touching stories in the newspaper about people I don’t even know, stories I try to read aloud to my sweetie, but can’t make it through without blubbering. I cry at movies, even ones that aren’t particularly sad. And I was moved to tears dozens of times this summer during the Olympics, watching athletes old and young as they encountered dreams realized and hopes dashed. Needless to say, I cry when long distance racers get tangled up and then help each other across the finish line.

IMG_6231Do grocery store parades make you weepy?  Well, it turns out, they do me…

But lately, there’s a new item in my quiver of teary triggers. They’re big, and gorgeous. They’ve been around for over a hundred years, some of them. They are their own ecosystems, they are so vast. And they are dying, all over town, right here in my fair city.

They are the beech trees of Cambridge. And some of them, too many of them, are suffering from a blight that renders these titans helpless over time.

IMG_6685The first beech I fell in love with, right here.  The one that owns its front yard.

I can’t remember exactly when I started noticing the specimen beeches of Cambridge, but I do know which one first took my breath away.   It’s in a fancy part of town, on a hill above Brattle Street. It completely possesses the space that it occupies, and blessedly, the owners of this property (and, in my mind, the designated caretakers of this gorgeous tree) let it have its way. I love that it gets to bow down with its low branches, almost brushing  the ground, and soar up so high it deserves a new zip code. I love coming upon this tree as I meander around a corner, watching it unfold before me as I make the turn. I love standing directly below this tree and looking up, through the pale green undersides of its dark crimson leaves.

* * * * *

IMG_4187Our library beech tree in springtime–the climbable creature upon which years were measured.

Also among the beech trees that first won my heart were a pair at the public library, just a couple blocks from our house. We were frequent fliers when my boys were young, trundling back and forth from our house to the children’s room, lugging canvas bags full of picture books, cartoon books, chapter books.   One day, when my older son was on the verge of outgrowing a stop at the playground, he saw some kids, just slightly older and bigger than he was then, perched on the lowest branch of the beech tree nestled closest to the library. That became his objective: to make it up to that branch, unassisted. And once he could clamber up, it became a vital part of the journey–walk to the library, climb the tree, go inside, check out books, go outside, climb the tree, walk back home.

That sacred beech, thankfully, survived the construction of an addition to our library that more than doubled the original square footage. Much as I was looking forward to the new space, I worried about our tree during the whole of the construction phase, which lasted nearly two years.

But while the climbing beech survived, its nearby relative did not. Sadly, the library’s second beech was already blighted, and the rattling of trucks and earth-movers just sped up its inevitable demise. I stopped in my tracks the day I passed by, not sure what had changed but immediately sensing something significant was missing, finally realizing that the once glorious half of a pair was–unfathomably–gone.  Just gone, an empty blotch where it had long stood, the nearby willow tree seemingly weeping for its missing neighbor.

IMG_3206I apparently deleted this photo from my stash.  It was too too sad, to come upon that naked stump.

* * * * *

Since that day, I’ve turned into a bit of a beech tree worrier.

Which, once you know that they’re suffering, is a hard state of mind to escape.  It’s also a particular burden if you happen to love the Mount Auburn Cemetery, that glorious arboretum of a graveyard, the first in America that was designed specifically to be beautiful–a treasure of a place that I walk to, and through, pretty much every week of the year.  It’s gorgeous in every season, it’s a perfect destination if you like birding or geology or architecture or landscapes or mature flowering plantings or the history that can be read from gravestones dating back to the Civil War and beyond.  And more than anything, it really is a museum of trees, from the familiar New England sugar maples and red oaks, to exotic umbrella pines from Japan, to drop-dead miracle trees, like the once-thought extinct Dawn Redwoods.  Don’t even get me going about how much I love those.  But most of all, what I have loved most for many years is the beech trees–European Beech, Purple Beech, Weeping Beech, you name it, they’re here in bunches.

Alas, even on the Mt. Auburn’s hallowed ground, the beeches are not exempt from the ravages of whatever it is that’s eating them alive.  I don’t pretend to be a botanist who could adequately explain this, I only know that the folks who take care of the trees at the Mt. Auburn are doing all they can do, and it’s just not enough.  Add to whatever mess of bacteria is infesting these solid trunks, there’s been an epic drought which is not helping, not at all.  I’ve been watching nervously when I see the arborists cutting the dead limbs, spraying the trunks, hoping for the best.  It’s hard to stand by when you know a beloved has taken a turn for the worse.  And those trees are most definitely my beloveds.


IMG_5163I keep taking beech tree portraits. I hate knowing that this gorgeous specimen will be gone in a matter of years.  It just feels so unfair.

* * * * *

Next up, the story of one beloved beech, really two in one.  I promise you won’t have to wait six months to see how this story turns out.  Also, just so you know, there will be a little good news coda.