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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.
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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.