An afternoon in July found me in the Arnold Arboretum landscape, on a writer’s quest, looking for inspiration for new poems. I was back for the first time since mid-March, when the impact of the coronavirus became unmistakable. Masked in the brilliant summer sun, I revisited the copse of white pines atop Bussey Hill, and on my way back down the hill, I cut across the dry, dusty grass where the mansion of Benjamin and Judith Bussey (the hill’s namesakes) once stood. There, I found what I had been looking for—an entrance into a new world, one created by an old weeping beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’, accession 22746*A).
Composing in my mind, I parted the emerald curtain of branches. Inside was a space of light and awe. Sequins of sun edged through a jangle of leafy streamers. At my feet, swollen roots appeared to be burnished like antique pewter. The tree forms a living memoir, written in the layering of branches that produce younger trunks. Those offspring encircle the mother trunk and echo its smooth gray. This was truly a tree to write about, with an allure both glorious and otherworldly.
For me, all beeches have an aura of magic, but this tree, with its resplendent sanctuary, is my delight. It draws me in, hinting of a mythical forested world. Artists paint beeches; writers write about them—and also on them. Their wide boles of smooth silver have beckoned lovers and poets through the centuries. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Orlando hangs his love notes upon the trees, amorously declaring, “O Rosalind, these trees shall be my books.” This weeping beech is a well-annotated tree, incised with the names, initials, words of those who hoped to leave some mark, proclaim passion, or silently (!) voice an observation.
My own words would never find a “voice” on a tree. Still, I am curious about the R’s and E’s, hearts, and watchful eyes on this trunk—and I wonder about the impassioned sentiments that have already elongated and faded into its skin. When the tree was first mentioned in the Arboretum records, in 1942, it was described as “an old tree,” presumably part of the nineteenth-century landscaping. The Bussey mansion was transferred to Harvard from the family in 1896, after the death of Thomas Motley, the husband of the Busseys’ granddaughter, Maria. From that time until ours, how many must have marveled beneath this canopy?
Weeping beeches have long inspired writers to mold that marvel into words. Garden and catalogue writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century featured the weeping beech frequently, embellishing its description with curious and sometimes contradictory adjectives. Consider Albany Nurseries’ 1915 description: “quite ungainly in appearance … of wonderful grace and beauty.” One wonders that they sold. Frank J. Scott, in The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent, published in 1873, resolved the contradictions into an enlightened use of prose: “It is the very embodiment of all the odd freaks of growth that make trees picturesque, and the vigorous healthfulness of foliage that makes them beautiful.”
An etching in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, from 1870, catches my own writing imagination—the tree leans and agitates, even in the stillness of an illustration. Its branches, from the very top to the thick undulating midsection, appear to swoop and splay about the ground in a hoary tapestry of leaf and limb. The tree’s form and aspect appear as a landscape upon a landscape—so yes, as the accompanying article proclaims, “both grotesque and picturesque.”
Our tree stands steeple-like on the hill, catching a mosaic of sun. This specimen is surely, to echo a description from The Horticulturist in August 1872, “like a cathedral built by one of the old masters of architecture.” I consider the wonder of its life. It reassures me, even in our present world, that we, with this beech, remain, survive, hold to our roots. Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’ is evidence of nature’s endurance and humanity’s desire to be remembered. It is a witness. Though it does weep, I believe it is with a wondrous joy where it touches the earth.
Sheryl L. White is coordinator of visitor engagement and exhibitions at the Arnold Arboretum. Her poetry chapbook, Sky gone, was published by Finishing Line Press this fall.