During the spring and summer most of look at the trees surrounding us and see a generally undifferentiated green. The tree foliage grows full and heavy; for the most part we don’t see the individual hues, or shapes. That changes in the autumn.
During the past few weeks I have been particularly aware of the changes in the trees, partly because of the color changes each hour with the fluctuation of sunlight and shadow. Then, each day the color and hue change as chlorophyll slowly drains away leaving unsuspected color that was there all the time.
As the wind begins stripping trees of their foliage, the shape of each individual leaf becomes clear. There are those with lobed edges, others are serrated. Some are round or heart shaped, others are oval or elongated, some grow in clusters and other are quite separate. So many individualities.
This year I am newly aware of the drama and beauty in the progression of the autumn, that isn’t appreciated fully when the TV weatherman reports on ‘peak’ foliage season, alerting watchers to the best and most brilliant panoramas that are waiting to be viewed, preferably in glowing sunlight.
I have turned to an old book, Autumnal Leaves published in London in 1881, that I bought at a book sale years ago. I could not resist the author’s name, Frances George Heath, but I found a man so taken with the transience of foliage color:
“The rich luxuriance . . . of every view,
The mild and modest tint, the splendid hue,
The temper’d harmony of various shades,
Alas! Whose beauty at once and fades,”
that he filled his book with detailed descriptions of every type of leaf, and suggested the best places in England to take an autumnal ramble and admire the blossoming of fall.
Here in New England so much attention is paid to the flaming maples that other trees get short shrift, yet this year it is the beech that has attracted my attention. The wooded road leading to my house is lined with many small beech trees. I have been amazed to watch the leaves of summer green metamorphose and gain sunny yellow stripings, shifting again until the golden leaves are only slightly marked with green, before the gold turns tawny and finally a dull dry brown. Heath noticed this characteristic detail, with “the veins being the last to give up the normal green hue.”
When I moved to Greenfield in 1971 I was occasionally treated to dinner at the Copper Beech Inn. Henry (not yet my husband) and I would look out and admire the magnificent ancient beech tree with its dark leaves, more burgundy than copper. There is a housing development there now. I don’t know if the tree survives.
Beech trees are noticeable and identifiable in the winter because they retain so many of their leaves. They are dry and brown, rustling in the winter squalls, but are not abscissed, or torn from the branch. In the spring, new leaves push the old leaves off.
The term for this process is marcescense.
While I am talking about new vocabulary words, I must mention that the ancients considered beech trees a symbol of the written word, and thus of learning and wisdom. In fact, before there was paper, thin beech boards were used to make books. Books allowed knowledge to be passed from generation to generation. The Old English word boc and Old Norse word bok meant both beech and book. As a former librarian and reader I am happy to know about this connection between the trees in my landscape, and the books lining my shelves.
The pagans considered the beech to be the Mother of the Woods and felt that she brought prosperity and wisdom. Part of that wisdom was the ability to keep an open mind and not be rigid in thought.
Beech wood has other practical uses. Though without a decorative grain, it is used in furniture construction, flooring and plywood manufacture. As a hardwood it is as good a firewood as the sugar maple and oak.
Beech trees do produce small nuts, called beechnuts or beechmast. They are bitter, but edible and very nutritious. In Europe in the days when pig farming was a very different proposition from what it is today, pigs were allowed into the forests to eat the beechmast. Foraging pigs must have made quite a noise because one of the characteristics of beech leaves is their dryness. Of course lower levels of leaves in a beech grove will decay, but the upper leaves will remain dry and rustling.
According to Heath, the dry leaves retain such resiliency that common people in Switzerland and France used to stuff their mattresses with beech leaves. In colonial times here in the United States we often used corn husks for mattresses, and I have to say that beech leaves sound less rough and more comfortable.
As I drive along our roads in Heath I am amazed at the differing rate among the beeches and their changes in color, even when they are growing right next to each other. But no matter what phase of autumnal color they are showing off they are worth our attention and admiration.
Between the Rows November 7, 2009