There is a section of trail at Spring Lake at Abbott Marshlands in Hamilton Township, New Jersey that was once called the Beech Trail, named for a majestic American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) tree that dominated a spot on the south side of an island that is part of the nature preserve.
The tree was unusual on the island, which is otherwise dominated by River Birch, Oaks, Tuliptrees, Maples and Sassafras, with a rich understory that includes Arrowwood Viburnum, Common Spicebush, Winterberry Holly, Highbush Blueberry, and an herbaceous layer with Wild Oats, Canada Mayflower and Virginia Spiderwort, among many others. Maybe I wasn’t observant enough, but I never noticed another Beech tree in the vicinity of this one.
For years, this beautiful Beech dominated its surroundings, overseeing the marsh below where Wood Ducks, Mergansers, Mallards and other ducks are often seen foraging for food, especially in winter.
As Beech Trees sometimes do, this tree developed a natural cavity at its base, a cavity large enough to provide shelter for some of the Island’s animal inhabitants.
In spite of this cavity, the Beech tree continued to grow and prosper, its remaining inner bark undisturbed and providing a sufficient vascular system to pump food to all of the tree’s branches and leaves.
Then one day as my husband and I approached the tree, we saw evidence of a fire in its open base. One or more individuals had been setting fires in the hollow of this and other trees on the Island.
The fire didn’t kill the tree, but it did weaken and stress the wood that provided structural support for this lovely giant.
After a few years the stress took its toll, and major branches of the tree began to break.
Over the next few years, more of the branches broke down. Eventually, all of the major branches of the tree broke off. Because of its proximity to the trail, the wood was cut up and removed.
Now on the approach to the area where this once magnificent tree stood, the only remaining visible evidence of the tree is a burned snag less than 10 feet tall.
When I see the remains of this vibrant tree, it makes me sad to think how destructive we humans can be.
But the last time we visited the area, I took a closer look and began to be encouraged. From a different angle, I could see that there was still one living branch coming from the dead-looking stump stretching out towards the sun and the marsh below.
When I looked around, I noticed two vigorous young Beech trees directly across the trail intersection from this tenacious tree.
A glance down the trail to the east revealed parchment-like winter leaves vibrating in the breeze in many places, a tell-tale sign of many more young beech trees of varying ages.
As I looked to the west, there were young healthy Beech trees every few feet lining the trail as far as I could see.
Beech trees are able to reproduce through the nuts they produce, but they also have an extensive root system from which they send up new shoots. Many, if not all, of these young Beech trees are shoots from the one formerly majestic mother tree that still clings to life at the edge of the island. She lives on.
Seeing the proliferation of young Beech trees gives me hope that the other species in our ecosystem will help heal the wounds inflicted in our world by unthinking members of our own species.
Thanks to Jeff Worthington for the use of his excellent photos documenting a few slices in the life of this American Beech.
For more information about American Beech trees, click here.