24 August, 2021
This post is a hymn of praise to the European beech tree.
The tree has been a constant companion on our hikes this summer as we explore the western reaches of the Wienerwald, the woods encircling Vienna to its north and west. Apart from the odd oak, wild cherry, and conifer, the European beech reigns supreme in the Wienerwald.
My memories of the beech start at the age of 10 or so, at my Prep school (Brit-speak for a private, boarding, primary school). Just outside the school gates, at the bottom of a field, was a magnificent copper beech; we would pass it every time we made our way to the school’s playing fields which were down the road. I have no photo of this tree, it may even no longer stand, so this photo will have to stand in for it and for all these magnificent variants of the beech.
I used to think the copper beech was a different species, but no, all the world’s copper beeches are fruit of a single spontaneous mutation that occurred in a beech tree in a forest in Thuringia, in Germany. It was noticed back in 1690 and was carried from there around the world. One single mutation … like blue eyes.
My next memory of beech is a long beech hedge at my Public school (Brit-speak for a private, boarding, secondary school), which bordered the campus’s entrance road. It was lovely during the summer, with that long solid block of tender green running along the road. Again, I don’t have a photo of this hedge, so this photo of a wonderful hedge somewhere in the UK will have to stand in for it.
It was really only when we moved to Vienna and got to know the Wienerwald that my wife and I discovered beech woods. And what magnificent woods they are! I insert here one photo we took, where the sun dappled the trunks that stretched off into the distance.
But our iPhones can’t do these woods justice, so I’ve also picked out a few photos from the Internet taken by people who’ve got the right equipment and know what they are doing.
That last photo could be of us, following the marked paths through the woods, rather like Hansel and Gretel following Hansel’s white pebbles.
Having been enchanted by these beech woods, my wife and I have decided that some day we will visit some of Europe’s primeval beech forests. These are beech forests which have never, ever been cut or otherwise exploited by human beings, the kind of beech forests through which our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have wandered ten thousand and more years ago. There are 94 such forests in Europe, and as a group they have become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Austria has five of the 94, Italy 13. In one way or another, we’ll figure out a way of getting to a couple of them. In the meantime, I throw in a photo of one of the Austrian forests, Hintergebirg.
Interestingly enough, the UK has no primeval beech forests (nor does Ireland, for that matter). It could be that over the centuries the British have simply not been able to leave any of their beech forests alone, cutting them, clearing them, or otherwise fiddling around with them. Or it could be that there never were any primeval beech forests in the first place. The beech is considered natural in the southern part of the island. However, some voices have been raised wondering if this is actually correct. These voices suggest that perhaps the beech was brought to the UK by our Iron Age ancestors, who wanted to have it with them as a source of food – the food in question in this case being the beech tree’s nuts, or mast as it is called. Here we have a (very) close-up – the nuts are quite small.
And here we see them as my wife and I would probably see them, if we went looking for them, half hidden among dead leaves on the ground.
I must confess to having been surprised to read that our ancestors ate mast. But that only goes to show how alienated I have become from natural sources of food – “if it ain’t on supermarket shelves it ain’t food”. By my reckoning, it’s five generations since any of my ancestors might have foraged for beech mast. But foraging is becoming popular, with many websites dedicated to this lost art form. A good number of them mention beech mast, claiming that the nuts are good to eat (although small and time-consuming to gather). Other, probably more objective sites warn that the nuts can taste bitter because of their high levels of tannins, but that they can be ground to a flour and the tannins leached out – that’s probably how my more recent ancestors would have eaten mast, if and when they ate it. I now know that I should start looking out for fresh nuts on our hikes in a few weeks’ time; they fall in late August, early September. I’ll try a couple – and see if I can’t persuade my wife to try them too – and will report back.
Coming back to beech woods, one of their characteristics is that they are – relatively speaking – quite dark; the crown of leaves at the top of the trees are dense enough to keep out a lot of the incoming sunlight. As a result, little if anything grows in the shade of the towering beech trunks. The most common sight is a carpet of bronze-coloured beech leaves lying on the forest floor, the product of the trees losing their leaves year after year. My wife and I see this most spectacularly on the hikes we do during the winter months through a beech wood high above Lake Como, when the dead beech leaves on the ground are the only colour present.
But from time to time we walk through sections of beech woods where a beautiful field of grass lies at the feet of the trees.
I don’t know what grass this is, or why it only grows in certain places, but the sight of these lawns stretching off into the distance between the trees is a joy to behold. But perhaps not as breathtaking as the fields of bluebells in some of the UK’s beech woods.
The bluebells escape the deadly shade of the beeches by flowering before the trees are fully in leaf. I’m ashamed to say that I have never visited any of these bluebell groves – another item on our bucket list.
The other characteristic of beech woods is the trees’ smooth bark. It’s quite a striking sight to see all these pale grey, smooth trunks towering up into the sky above our heads. And one can immediately spot the lone oak or cherry or conifer skulking among the beeches; their rough barks stand out. This smoothness actually signals a fragility in the beech’s bark; it is easily scarred and the marks remain forever as the bark cannot heal. Many of the beech trees we cross are marked by scars in their bark, no doubt caused by branches of other trees or bushes scraping against them when they were young. But on our walks we also see examples of silly boys, and perhaps some silly girls, using the inability of the beech’s bark to heal to carve their initials into it, quite often combined with the initials of a loved one and the whole enclosed within a heart; they will stay, more and more distorted as the tree grows, until it is cut or blown down.
Initials carved in a beech’s bark is another of my beech memories. This particular beech was in my French grandmother’s garden and the initials carved into its bark my uncle’s. He must have done it 30-40 years before I saw it. Family lore has it that my grandmother was furious with him when she discovered this disfigurement of her tree – “so vulgar!” – and gave him a good thrashing. The tree has gone, alas. It died some 15 years after my grandmother died, shaded out, I suspect, by the mighty sequoia nearby, but also probably suffering from a drop in the area’s aquifer: too much water is being pumped out.
Scratching initials on beech bark allows me to make a connection between this wonderful tree and another wonderful item of which I have many exemplars: the book. Beech and book actually come from the same root, the Old English bōc. This has the primary sense of “beech” but also a secondary sense of “book”. The connection is perhaps more obvious in other modern Germanic languages. In modern German, the word for “book” is Buch, with Buche meaning “beech tree”. In modern Dutch, the word for “book” is boek, with beuk meaning “beech tree”. In Swedish, the word bok means both “beech tree” and “book”. This connection allows me to hold forth on another favourite topic of mine, trade – or rather, the exchange of ideas that comes with trade.
When the Germanic tribes migrated into Europe, pushing out the Celts, they were illiterate, with no culture of writing and no alphabet of their own. When they met the Romans, they fought them of course, but they also traded with them and in so doing came into contact both with writing and with the waxed wooden tablets on which traders (and many others in the Roman Empire) made notes or wrote short missives. As far as the alphabet was concerned, the Germanic tribes adopted a precursor to the Roman alphabet, the old Italic alphabet, to create their runes. As for the tablets, the Germanic tribes used the tree that surrounded them, the beech, to make them, and called these tablets after the tree from which they came. Later, when the Germanic tribes shifted to using parchment, they continued to call what they wrote in books.
Being made of wood, these tablets have normally decayed away, but some examples of Roman tablets have been unearthed along Hadrian’s Wall, somehow miraculously avoiding the normal decay processes.
So from now on the books which surround me will remind me every day of the beech trees which surround us on our walks in the Wienerwald.