This excerpt from Casting Deep Shade by C.D. Wright, forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in February 2019, is reprinted with permission from Copper Canyon. Photographs are by C.D. Wright, except for Bibletree, which is by Edward Forrest Frank.
The beech bears the scars of love: Erica loves Ricky, Julia loves Jesus. “Better to propose marriage at Yankee Stadium by dirigible than to carve initials into a beech,” suggests one would-be protector.
Mitch Epstein’s photographs of New York’s landmark trees include a beech tattooed from toe to crown. One of those deeds that cannot be undone.
For its carving: autograph tree, initial tree, scarring tree, tattoo tree, valentine tree:
O Rosalind, these trees shall be my books,
And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character,
That every eye which in this forest looks
Shall see thy virtue witness’d every where.
Run, run, Orlando, carve on every tree
The fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she.
Who [shall] grave on the rind of my smooth beeches some belovèd name? William Cullen Bryant. Dad was appreciative of Bryant. I could not comprehend this. He chose a selection from Bryant for “The Lost Roads Project,” reading a passage on immortality, from his courtroom bench in his frayed robes, filmed by my husband, Forrest. My father’s voice by then fragile as a moth wing. My husband wore Dad’s robes at commencements at Brown until they fell apart.
Among the most famous of the signed specimens (from the literary angle) stands at Coole Park, Lady Gregory’s estate, signed by Yeats of course, Shaw, O’Casey, Synge, and all the other Irish hotshot writers of the day.
Maud Gonne never loved poor William Butler Yeats, though I can’t believe she ever fell for the creepy major she married, whom quickly in fact she loved not. Poor WB proposed to Maud’s daughter Iseult, conceived in her dead brother’s mausoleum from MG’s liaison with a married Frenchman. Since Yeats couldn’t have Maud . . . I think he should have lost his virginity at a far earlier age. But then we would have been deprived of the frustration his ear alone sustained with grace.
Coole House no longer stands, but the copper beech near Gort which Lady Gregory encouraged her guests to autograph lives on.
And it was “a beechen green” wherein Keats’s “light-winged Dryad,” the nightingale, sang “in full-throated ease.”
I happened on a mention that Europeans once regarded a copper in the wild as a mark of nature’s censure for some unnatural offense; therefore, suggested planting in moderation.
For a carving, the Bible Tree, near Brookville, PA, scripture inscribed by a hermit as instructed in a vision.
For healing, esp asthma in a child: core out a hole in trunk, put lock of asthmatic’s hair in hole. Plug hole. When child has reached height of hole, asthma will be all gone.
My brother had warts on his hands he was told were transmitted by frog urine (perhaps a rural Protestant ersatz penance for masturbation). Grandma Wright rubbed the warts with bean leaves. Instructed Warren to bury the leaves and never look back. When this did not prove effective, he had the warts burned off at the doc’s office. Grandma Wright said he looked back. He insisted he had not. Then you didn’t believe. She snapped her eyes.
On the weeping beech Epstein photographed in Brooklyn’s Botanic Garden, Heaven is knifed into its uppermost reaches.
Indian Tree, because it does not take to “civilized” conditions.
For its carving, a witness tree:
I think of a witness tree as one that stood its ground, when something happened, possibly something no human was meant to see. I think of the Pacific yew in Warren, RI, brought over on one of Commodore Perry’s black ships by the botanists Rev. Samuel Williams and Dr. James Morrow. In 1978 a murder took place in the severe old house on Miller Street with its side-yard yew. Midday, the victim, owner of the emporium, House of a Million Items, was in the shower. Ten shots to the abdomen and the temple. That’s hatred. Cold and bloody.
(The bark of the Pacific yew [Taxus brevifolia] was discovered to be the natural source of paclitaxel [Taxol], but the cancer-fighting compound required 2 tons of bark to yield 10 pure grams. Eventually a “blockbuster” synthetic was developed in lieu of yew bark.)
A probable, never-charged patricide. A botched investigation, contaminated evidence, a cover-up, and so forth. When I pass the house, I see the yew long risen past the window on the second floor I picture being the site of the attack on a naked, nearsighted man.
Witness tree, graffiti tree, tattoo tree, autograph tree, trysting tree, avenue tree, arborglyph, CMT (culturally modified tree), Presidents’ Tree (for the one in Tacoma Park carved with presidents from Washington to Lincoln in 1865; blown down in 1997). They say it really doesn’t hurt the tree, all that carving. But harm and hurt are different. Beech bark is a tender thing.
In Bankhead National Forest, AL, there are many message trees, including one of the horned serpent Uktena.
So Tennyson sat on a “serpent-rooted beech.”
X meant HONEY HERE. It still means honey here.
Honey, if the bees be with us.
(If we go, says the cartoon bee’s speech bubble, we’re taking you with us.)
As one scientist put it, We are the asteroid.
Knowing the general outline of argument of the Holocene extinction put forth by Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, I have not yet brought myself to the pain of cracking its spine, to be taken to the brink. I sit here eating “carefully watched over” cashews grown in India, from one of the 102 billion plastic bags used annually in the US, wearing a linen shirt (albeit secondhand) made in China, jeans fabriqué en Haïti, Delta Blues Museum T-shirt made in Honduras . . . a walking, talking profligate. I once crouched in the Cortona cell where the mendicant St. Francis spent his last deathward winter, and his no-thermostat-coarse-wool-tunic demise is not an alternative I would choose, but the pressing necessity of conserving resources, curbing consumption, functioning in an economy shifted closer to the source gathers force with each extinguished specimen.
Never fear, RoboBees are coming to your clover and climbing roses soon, courtesy of Micro Air Vehicles Project at Harvard. Never fear, W. S. Merwin assured, there is a hair hanging by everything / it is the edges of things.
In the meantime, hand-pollinating with tiny brushes or cotton swabs is on the rise.
Regarding the witness tree:
Beech is preferred for carving in the East, aspen in the West.
Sequoyah Cemetery in the Smokies contains one fieldstone inscribed in the syllabary, but I have not turned up a nondisputed example of an extant beech tree using the Cherokee’s system.
Sequoyah, meaning “pig’s foot,” reputedly nicknamed by his father for an injury that left him lame. Within a year of finishing his 86-symbol syllabary in 1821, Sequoyah’s legacy was secure, a whopping 90 percent of the Cherokee Nation was reputed to be literate, and the Cherokee Phoenix was in the middle of its 6-year print run.
According to a 2013 study by the US Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 14 percent of our population cannot read, 21 percent of adults read below a 5th-grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates cannot read.
The Cherokee Phoenix was first published in New Echota (near Calhoun, GA) in 1828. Signage on the trees was common. Some of these arborglyphs still endure, so I am told. Should there be any from that time, their lettering would obviously be far from the ground and much blurred from expanding with the tree’s growth.
Sequoyah is alleged to have kept notebooks on his last journey, into northeastern Mexico, a quest undertaken to account for each living Cherokee soul. The cave in which he was stove-up, too weak to travel farther, flooded before his son and other followers returned to find his body; his saddlebags washed away, including his priceless notebooks.
Sequoyah’s notebooks: this document would come closer to a sacred text for me than the Constitution (before it was subverted by the current Court-of-last-resort’s majority). Other accounts have the Cherokee Cadmus breathing his last in San Fernando, Mexico, saddlebags and papers having been retrieved downstream from the cave. No one has yet to come forward with a scrap.
Beech trees on the Trail of Tears are marked by Cherokee in presyllabaric code (Sequoyah stopped in Arkansas at a spot near Greers Ferry, now underwater, where he finished his single-minded opus).
The color for the Long Hair Clan of Cherokee (also known as Twister, Wind, or Hanging Down Clan) is yellow. Their tree is beech.
C.D. Wright (1949–2016) published sixteen collections of poetry and prose and served on the faculty at Brown University for decades. Her books include One With Others [a little book of her days], Rising, Fall- ing, Hovering, and One Big Self (a collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster). Casting Deep Shade comes out with Copper Canyon Press in 2019.