Opinion | What Our Beech Tree Teaches Us About the Possibility of the Future

A few falls ago, a friend forwarded us a real estate listing. Though we were not really in the market, we looked. The big orange bungalow was nice, but it was the beech tree that cast a spell. The enormous trunk looked like the leg of an old elephant. On the day we toured the house, thousands of hard, spiny burrs enclosing beech nuts blanketed the side yard. That, we were told, was a mast year, the beech seeding in exceptional quantities — which, of course, I took as a sign.

I was at that moment 10 weeks pregnant. We did not yet know if it would stay. We had not yet heard its heartbeat. Nor had we heard of beech leaf disease, a poorly understood malady spreading across North America at a surreal rate, rapidly killing both mature trees and saplings.

My husband walked toward the massive tree while I picked up a casing and clutched it in my closed fist, humbled by the way its nuts guarantee both the beech’s continuation and the continuation of so many creatures in the neighborhood: the squirrels and pileated woodpeckers, the chipmunks and blue jays. I’m almost envious of the tree — the way its reproduction doesn’t, like ours, seem to trip the wire we’ve tied to existential threat, doesn’t make one wonder about how much carbon its offspring will combust and how that combustion will come home to roost. Mostly, I admire its generosity, its wordless willingness to care for what is not in any immediate sense its own.

Three months later, we have closed on the house and are moving in. Two months after that, we are among the lucky who can stay home as a pandemic rearranges the threads of everyday life. We unpack boxes, attend birth classes on Zoom, build raised garden beds, hold on as time pulls in even tighter around these transforming bodies. We invite an arborist to the house. He is the one who tells us about the newly discovered blight, that it causes beech leaves to turn leathery and branches to wither. He tells us that it can kill a big tree like ours in less than 10 years. There is no cure, he says.

Soon I must somehow allow a child to pass through me, into the light. I both do and don’t know how to do this labor. I call my doula and tell her my left leg hurts. “Put it up on something,” she advises. “Lean into the discomfort.” I walk over to the beech. Put my foot up on its roots and place my palm on its trunk.

My family and this tree, we are entwined.

The summer my son is born, I start compulsively scanning the beech’s understory, looking for the telltale banding that means the disease has arrived. I take photos and send them to our tree guy with my stomach in my throat. “No,” he responds. I think, “Not yet.” We spray phosphite on the trunk to make our tree even stronger, and we aerate the soil to help more nutrients reach the roots.

I teach our child to greet the beech when we return home after any length of time. We build fairy houses with its wind-snapped branches. And relish the rain running rivers down its long gray spine during storms.

One day, I come back from a bike ride and pluck a sick-looking leaf from the lowest branch. Its underside is spotted with what looks like a small white insect. Is it the nematode, I wonder, the worm thought to be spreading the disease? Three minutes later I am compulsively scrolling through Google results for “beech leaf disease.” On the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry page, I learn that the woolly beech aphid is a common look-alike that spots the underside of the leaf with waxy filaments.

I relax, for about 30 seconds, then I think: “This tree is going to die from beech leaf disease. It’s not a question of if but when.” I know I am being dramatic, but ours is a dramatic time. Beech leaf disease was discovered in 2012, and in the decade since its arrival, it has become one of the largest threats to one of North America’s most important hardwoods. I am tempted to say that climate change is exacerbating its spread, but the pest is so new, we really don’t have the data to prove it — yet.

Everywhere I turn these days, I read about the new normal. The killing heat, the devastating floods, the toxic smoke. Rapidly proliferating pests like the emerald ash borer destroying our ash trees and the woolly adelgid killing our hemlocks. All now normal. That word — so cloying and deceptive in its suggestion that no more change is coming — steals from us the possibility of being transformed, for better or worse.

Last year, through the long summer drought, we watered our beech. Sometimes we invented songs and used our voices to lift them up into its bright blowing branches. This year we planted more snowdrops and bluebells because they often grow beneath beech in ancient woodlands. It is far too easy to accept the beech’s untimely end as inevitable, to become immobilized by a kind of anticipatory despair. What is more difficult and more necessary is to continue to live alongside it, with attention and care, together, now.

Elizabeth Rush is the author of the book “The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth.” She teaches in the nonfiction writing program at Brown University.

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