Beech Leaves

It’s spring! I know it because at dusk for the past couple of evenings, the peepers have been laughing at the last of the melting snow. This passing winter was significant in my life, one I’ll long recall.

After selling our Massachusetts family home last summer, I landed in a cabin in a secluded patch of the New Hampshire woods. It was late September. Each window offered a view of the woodlands and to the east, the lake beyond. The color and movement of forest life streamed relentlessly through the glass and tugged at my attention, begging a break from desk duties.  My two furry walking buddies always demand it, and all too often I caved. It was a flashy autumn that deeply faded into soft grays of winter.

These woods vary in age, but are largely uncut and offer mature specimens of both evergreens and hardwoods. Across the lake, there is a dark glen of ancient cathedral hemlocks.  Very little grows in these giants’ understory and when there, I am overcome with a primeval sense of time and mystery. This side of the water, gnarly sugar maples line gravel roads and the largest specimens often betray the location of bygone homesteads, now just foundation holes in the forest rubble. Sentinel pines own the ridges and are scattered randomly down hillsides overlooking younger hardwoods that have taken back old fields cleared by farmers long gone. Only tumbling rock walls remain to honor the toil our forefathers endured to keep family and flock. Cherry, ash, birch and maple trees fill out the forest and their fallen leaves, nutrition for coming springs, crackle under boot and paw. Game trails cut safe routes through these hills crossing countless small streams and circling boggy bottoms.

This winter-time, the beeches struck my eye. Though winter now has mostly passed, they cling to their leaves as do their taller cousins, the oaks. The horizontal beech branches conspicuously contrast with the verticality of the bare winter forest. Their leaves are paler now, tan and missing their pink and gold hues of fall, somewhat bleached, I suppose, by sun and cold wind.

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I wonder why they hold fast to their foliage when all about them have long since dropped theirs. I’ve read that early on in Earth’s history, all trees were evergreen, much like our white pine, and lost only a small percentage of their leaves annually. Across the millennia, some specimens began to drop all their leaves as they adapted to changing climate and soil conditions. The birch, cherry, maple and such have completed this adaptation. The beeches and oaks remain caught somewhere in between then and now. Some tree biologists propose that beeches hold their leaves to extend the period of mulch nutrition while others say lingering beech leaves capture moisture from rain and snow.

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On my fall and winter walks, I developed my own beech leaf theory. They linger, for me anyway, to glow as they snare the winter sun rays before they fall in blotches on the forest floor. They’re my compass, the leaves on their outstretched branches always pointing away from the prevailing winter winds.  Beech leaves stay to rattle in the first snow in late fall – half sleet, half flake. Then, as winter thickens, collect more than their share of downy flakes.

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Geraldine Legg was my senior English teacher.  Though her manner was gruff, she was direct, fair and inspiring. Her kids thrived in literature and language usage. One Georgia winter, she required each student to memorize a poem and stand before the class to recite it. And repeat the torture, if necessary, until your presentation was flawless.  Miss Legg gave me the gift of this Robert Frost poem. (If you know it, try singing to the tune ‘Greensleeves’. It works nicely.) Lyrical and fitting, it was in my head all winter as I walked Frost’s New Hampshire woodlands.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep. 

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The warm seasons approach and I, too, have promises, duties. And though they’ll take me  to points north, hot days are sure to arrive. When the summer heat bears down, I’ll escape to these winter woods – and delight in the beeches.

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