Call it the social register tree! Something about the smooth, smoke gray bark of a beech seems to present a blank page to the human eye, motivates the hand to grab a sharp tool and begin carving. It’s hard to find one of any size in a well visited place that doesn’t have at least a few letters incised in its skin. Large beeches absent human inscription are usually found deep in the woods or in a well guarded yard. It’s not just that the fine bark cuts easily, but the resultant callus formed by the tree to compartmentalize the wound enables the writing to stay for decades.
My first stop on a recent tour of state champion beech trees not far from my Connecticut home found me in Hartford’s Cedar Hill Cemetery where such luminaries as J.P. Morgan, Katherine Hepburn and Wallace Stevens are buried. Along the main entrance road opposite a pond and just before the flagpole I stopped at the base of the state’s largest rivers purple beech, a tree distinguished for its deep purple spring foliage. With a columnar trunk, it stands ninety-one feet tall and is a robust 129 inches in diameter at breast height. Its gray bark is wrinkled in places like elephant skin. A variety of letters and symbols, including obligatory hearts, were carved on it, though none recently. With the distortions of time and tree growth they have become bloated and malformed, some taking on the appearance of hieroglyphics. Moss had collected in a few of the carvings providing distinctive relief and fuzzy color that made them appear even more ancient. The tree’s tattoos included initials, names, dates, numbers, geometric designs, and phrases cut in a variety of styles and depths.