I have fallen in love with beech trees (Fagus grandifolia). I was always fond of them, but over the years my affection has ripened into something deeper— something I’m not afraid to use the “L word” to describe.
The light inside a beech forest changes with each season, but always there is a radiance that makes your heart beat faster. The leaves are more translucent than the leaves of other types of trees, so more light passes through them; and the light takes on the hue of the leaves: pale green in the spring, lime green in the summer, and clear yellow in the fall. Even in the winter the trees are decorated for the season, with a few parchment-colored leaves hanging on, and perhaps some pine needle tinsel caught on the horizontal branches. The lower branches tend to droop down, sometimes forming a magical sanctuary full of that unreal light. Tell me, how can you not be in love with beech trees?
I USED TO WORK for the state of Maryland looking for rare and endangered plants. My botanist friend and I tramped through every kind of forest and habitat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The days we got to spend time in a beech forest were special. People here take them for granted, but the reality is that only 2 percent of the forests in our area are beech forests, and all of them are on private land. That means that not one of them is protected from logging, and the rest of us have no say at all about what happens to them. If the landowners cut down every single beech forest in the state, it would be perfectly legal and acceptable in the eyes of the government. It makes me wonder about the wisdom of depending on the government to protect the environment.
One of my favorite beech forests, full of big, old trees, was in an area called Nutter’s Neck. We visited the forest early one spring and had fun finding red-backed salamanders (Plethodon cinereus cinereus) hiding under branches on the damp forest floor. I had never seen so many salamanders in my life! Although a herpetologist will tell you that redbacks are the most common salamanders in the northeastern United States, it is still a thrill to find them. These little amphibians have no lungs, so they have to get their oxygen by absorbing it through their skin. The absorption mechanism works only if the skin is damp, so dry equals death to the salamanders. As you might imagine, a good rain brings them out in droves. They scamper around on the ground licking up ants, beetles, spiders, snails, and grubs. At night they climb trees looking for food. The salamanders literally stuff themselves when conditions are favorable, and live off their stored fat when conditions are too dry to forage.1
The salamanders typically live in forests that contain older deciduous trees, such as the one we were working in. They don’t do well in pure pine forests because the needles that drop to the ground under the pines are very acidic and the acidity interferes with the salamander’s “skin breathing.”
ODORS ARE A VITAL PART of the red-backed salamander’s world. An individual can smell another salamander and tell if it is a relative or not, and can tell by an area’s odor whether it is in some other salamander’s territory. Scent is also important for mating. The male will rub his scent on a female to stimulate her to breed. When both partners are ready, the male will deposit onto the forest floor a small, egg-shaped object that contains sperm. The female follows behind him and picks up the “sperm egg” with her cloaca (the amphibian equivalent of a vagina).2 Those ignorant of salamander lifestyles might imagine that the salamander mothers just deposit their eggs in a suitable spot and then forget about them. Nothing could be further from the truth. After she lays her fertilized eggs down in a dark crevice of the earth, the female salamander will literally protect them with her life. She stays curled around the eggs—not even venturing out to feed—until they hatch. Salamander eggs that are not in contact with the female become infested with fungus and die. Scientists recently discovered that the female salamander’s skin is inhabited by bacteria that prevent the growth of the egg-attacking fungus.3
AMONG THE INTERESTING PLANTS we often found growing under beech trees during our surveys was the appropriately named beech-drops (Epifagus virginiana). The plants may grow more than a foot tall, but it is easy to miss them because they have no green leaves at all— they are a purplish-brown color that blends in with the browns of the forest floor. They lack green leaves because they do not photosynthesize. Most plants have to photosynthesize to make sugars, the source of their energy, but beech-drops live off the sugars produced by the beech tree. The roots of the beech-drops tap into the roots of beech trees and pilfer the sugars needed for growth and reproduction. There is no evidence that the beech-drops harm the trees; it takes very little energy, after all, to support a small plant on the forest floor.
The beech-drops’ flowers are so small that you need a magnifying lens to see them well. They reproduce by seed, like most plants, but unless the seed falls near a beech tree, the seedling is doomed. No beech tree: no beechdrops. There’s always a price for letting someone else do all the work.
Beech-drops have a special place in my heart because they evoke a cherished memory. Long ago when I was an undergraduate studying plant science, some married friends of mine bought their first home. The house was in the suburbs, but their lot was full of trees, including beech trees. The lawn was too shady to support lawn grasses, so the soil was covered by moss. The first year my friends were in their new home, mysterious brown things poked up from beneath the moss. Were they fungi? Were they plants? Because I was a plant science major I was charged with finding out. I brought the things in to show to my botany professor, but he was young and new in his job and he didn’t know what they were either. He asked me to leave them with him. Later in the day I looked in and saw him surrounded by open books while he examined the mystery plants under a microscope. The next day he told me that they were called beech-drops and shared the information I have already told you here. I reported back to the new homeowners, who were pleased with their plants, which were unusual in the suburbs and not for sale in any catalog or nursery. I think back fondly on those days because now I am the one with the books and the microscopes, uncovering the mysteries of nature for others.
IN THE BEECH FOREST that day, my botanist friend and I also found another plant that you can easily walk by without noticing: the tway-blade orchid (Listera australis). This tiny plant has only two leaves, each just a bit bigger than a thumbnail, and somehow manages to survive in the deep shade under beech trees. The plant we found was blooming, but these flowers, also, were so small that we needed a magnifying lens to examine them. Why were we excited by this tiny little thing? Because it was an orchid! All field botanists get excited when they find wild orchids, perhaps because they understand better than others the long and perilous path orchids must follow to reach maturity.
Orchids are notorious for having complex relationships with their pollinators. The minuscule flowers we were looking at were so inconspicuous that a bee would never bother visiting them. The western species of the tway-blade orchid, and probably the eastern species, too, depends on fungus gnats to carry its pollen from plant to plant.4 The fungus gnat looks like a mosquito minus the sharp proboscis. After the gnats mate, the female lays her eggs on the damp forest floor where there is organic matter, such as old leaves, being consumed by fungi. The eggs hatch into larvae that resemble something you would wash from the corner of your eye, and the larvae begin feeding on the fungi— either on the threadlike mycelia or on the fungus fruits we call mushrooms. In time the larvae pupate and emerge as adult gnats. If the orchid is fortunate, it is blooming at the same time that the adult gnats are emerging. When one of the tiny flowers gets pollinated it begins to form seeds.
The seeds of most plants contain starchy food to nourish the embryonic plants as they germinate and grow toward the sunlight. Humans (and other animals) often eat seeds such as corn, beans, and wheat, usurping this starchy nourishment for ourselves. The bigger the seed, the more food is stored inside. Orchid seeds, however, are microscopic, dustlike particles. They contain a tiny embryo, but no food for it. The orchid seed cannot germinate and grow until it comes in contact with the right type of fungus. If the “right” fungus breaks through the wall of the orchid seed, the tiny embryo will begin to grow— feeding off the moisture and nutrients in the fungus. No gnats, no fungus: no orchids.
There are probably connections we don’t yet understand between the fungus that enables the orchid seeds to germinate, the fungus that lives on fallen beech leaves, and the fungus that feeds the gnat larvae.
AND SO IT IS that beech trees provide habitat for many species: the red-backed salamanders, beech-drops, tway-blade orchids, fungus gnats, and many fungal species. This is just the beginning of the list. I have not even mentioned the seeds of the beech and the organisms the seeds support.
A beech tree normally does not start producing seeds until it is forty years old. Unlike the orchid, the beech tree does store food in the seeds containing its plant embryos. The triangular beechnuts are encased in a prickly husk, two or three nuts to a case. In the fall the husk splits open and the nuts fall to the ground. The nuts can be eaten by many creatures, including humans— hence the Latin name for the beech tree genus, Fagus, which is Greek for “to eat.” I have nibbled on beechnuts, but I’m not patient enough to collect the amount necessary for a meal. If I were like the native peoples, and had no grocery store nearby, I might reconsider.
In addition to the squirrels, mice, birds, and other small creatures that depend on the beechnuts for food, the nuts are a critical food source for bears. The movement patterns and territory of a bear will include beech forests if there are any nearby. For the bear, beechnuts can mean the difference between survival and starvation. Sadly, there are no bears in “my” beech forests. The last one in this area was killed around 1900.
FIRST WE KILL the bears, then we kill the beech forests. When my botanist friend and I visited the forest again, most of it had been cut down. We were there on a Sunday, so the loggers were not working, but the silence made the sight even sadder. The freshly cut stumps were wet with sap, and the surrounding trees were waiting for their turn to die. The felled trees were not going to be used to build homes or furniture. They were going to be pushed into a pile to rot or be burned; at most they would go to the chip mill and be turned into pulp for making cardboard. The owner of the forest would get very little money for the trees. Why, then, was he (or she) having them cut? The beech trees were being removed because they weren’t valuable (in current economic terms), and because forty years from now they would just be a little bigger and still not valuable. But if the old beech trees were cut down and pines were planted in their place, in forty years the landowner could get a good price for the pine timber. And when that pine timber was cut, the land could be planted with pine again. Most likely we were witnessing the last beech forest ever to stand on that piece of ground. Good-bye red-backed salamanders who cannot live in the acid pine forests, good-bye beech-drops that cannot feed on pine roots, and good-bye tway-blade orchids that cannot survive the heavy equipment and herbicide sprays that are part of logging here. We have already said good-bye to the bears.
THE STATE OF MARYLAND, and probably your state, too, hires foresters with tax dollars. One semester I took my ecology students out to see the local “demonstration forest” run by the state forestry department. The purpose of the forest was to show landowners different forestry methods, but all I could see were pine trees, most of them very young. I asked if there was a natural forest that we could see for comparison. “No, sorry,” was the answer. “There is a little corner of the property, I think, but it’s too hard to get to, too muddy.” I guess natural forests were not supposed to be demonstrated. The forester did teach my students how to estimate the dollar value of the trees where we were standing, but that was not exactly the lesson I had in mind for an ecology class. I asked him if private landowners ever requested forestry advice from him. He said, yes, it was an important part of his job. I asked what he would advise someone who owned a forest full of big old beech trees. He said that if they wanted an economic return on their land, he would advise them to clear-cut the beech trees and plant pine.
I wiped the dust from my feet as I left that place.
“God doesn’t like a clearcut,” Janisse Ray explains in her book Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.5
You’d better be pretty sure that the cut is absolutely
necessary and be at peace with it, so you can explain it
to God, for it’s fairly certain he’s going to question your
motives, want to know if your children are hungry and your
oldest boy needs asthma medicine—whether you deserve
forgiveness or if you’re being greedy and heartless.… Pine
plantations dishearten God.
How many people, following a forester’s advice, have cut a native forest to get more money to put in the bank or to buy a vacation home or to “get even” because they paid taxes on the property all these years or just to “leave something for the kids”?
I know men who think that a shrewd business deal— one they can make money on quickly—is a sign of their intelligence. They’ll buy beautiful wooded land, sell the timber, plant pines, then sell the degraded property (“improved” in the eyes of the bank) and reap a large profit. These men think that they are smarter than I am because they have more money in the bank than I do. I feel sorry for them in a way; but mostly I feel sorry for the generation born after them.
PERHAPS THE ONLY WAY to ensure that future generations will get to see a beech forest is to buy one of the few left and protect it yourself. Two of my good friends did just that. When they were looking for land to build a house on they found a twenty-four-acre beech forest for sale. The owners were planning to cut the trees to sell as pulp and then sell the land. In addition to the sale price of the land, my friends paid the owners the amount they would have made on the pulp, and thereby were able to save the trees.
Their little forest was full of beautiful beech, chestnut oak, maple, and sweet gum trees, and during the house construction they tried to save as many of them as possible. They marked the trees to be saved, roped them off, and gave the contractors very specific instructions not to damage the trees. When the house was finally finished and the landscaping was completed, one by one the “protected” beech trees near the construction site died. Beech trees have shallow, sensitive roots, and the heavy trucks driving over the roots killed the trees even though the trunks were not touched. Beech trees are also very sensitive to minor changes in grade caused by construction; they need undisturbed soil to reach their full potential.
THINKING OF MY FRIENDS’ BEECH FOREST brings to mind another special inhabitant of the older deciduous forests. My friends’ new house had a big window looking out over the yard. In front of the window stood one of those dead beech trees with a dish full of birdseed at its base. By day the feeder was popular with many types of birds, but the real enchantment came at night. In the light of the outdoor spotlight shining on the feeder, we could see quick little southern flying squirrels (Glaucomys volans) zooming down to snatch a few seeds and then zipping off again. I was thrilled to see them. Flying squirrels inhabit many of Maryland’s older forests, and I had learned to recognize the high-pitched noises they make at night, but hearing them and seeing them are very different things. Scientists don’t usually use such terms, but I’ll come right out and say it: southern flying squirrels are just too cute— small, not much bigger than your hand, with big, round eyes. They are completely nocturnal and forage through the forest in the dark. Nuts, such as beechnuts and acorns, are favored food items, and that at least partly explains the absence of these animals from young pine plantations. Unlike other squirrels, which crack nuts open, flying squirrels use their sharp teeth to cut a dainty hole in the shell. Take a look at the acorns on the ground next time you’re in a forest to see if flying squirrels live there.
FLYING SQUIRRELS’ RESTRICTED NESTING requirements are another reason they do better in older forests. Cavities in dead trees, spots where large old branches have broken off or where woodpeckers have made nesting holes, are the favored nests of the flying squirrels, and these are more abundant in older forests. Secure nests far from the ground and predators are especially important for females. Newborn flying squirrels weigh less than a chocolate-covered cherry. These tiny, hairless creatures cannot hear or see. Their skin is so translucent that their internal organs are visible through it. Obviously, such delicate creatures need weeks of care from a devoted mother.
Flying squirrels are surprisingly unterritorial about their nests. Especially in cold weather, the philosophy seems to be “the more the merrier.” Large groups congregate in these winter nests and huddle together for warmth.
When my friends were having the dead beech tree in their yard removed, a group of squirrels jumped from a hole in the tree as it was on its way down. I have heard other stories of someone cutting a dead tree only to learn, too late, that it was a nesting space. Such stories should remind us of the important role that even seemingly useless dead trees play in the ecosystem.
Older forests that contain some dead and decaying wood also support abundant fungi, another favorite food of flying squirrels. Fungal spores pass through a squirrel’s digestive system unharmed, so the squirrels may be helpful in spreading the fungi to new areas of the forest. Researchers found that northern flying squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus) can spread spores from a mycorrhizal fungus that forms a symbiotic relationship with tree roots.6 Trees that have this fungal partner are more successful. So squirrel helps fungus, fungus helps tree, and tree helps squirrel.
IT IS A PARADOX we must live with: even when we try to do the right thing we sometimes destroy habitat. But all animals do that when making their homes— living on the earth requires harming other organisms. I have come to believe that the only moral solution to the paradox is to strive to minimize our impacts and to be utterly clear about the impacts we are having. By opening our hearts to our victims— instead of trying to ignore them— we become more sensitive, more whole. And perhaps doing this may teach us more about how to live within the complexities of life’s web. Maybe even the sorrow we feel for the organisms we destroy is part of the invisible web of life. I turn to Rilke again, a different poem this time, “What Survives”:
Who says that all must vanish?
Who knows, perhaps the flight
of the bird you wound remains,
and perhaps flowers survive
caresses in us, in their ground.7
My friends plan to protect the twenty remaining acres of their beech forest. We hope the squirrels survived, that they found another suitable nest elsewhere in the forest. They have certainly survived in our hearts.