This smooth-barked tree shows what a healthy beech
looks like. (PHOTOS BY BOB CONFER)
While there, they often killed time by carving their names and other things in the bark of the beech trees that are common in the woods. The smooth gray bark, so easy to cut with a pocketknife, has always been quite inviting to amateur artisans, not to mention young lovers who wanted their names forever inscribed in Mother Nature for all the world to see. The hoboes, the lovers, and anyone else interested in making a statement left their calling cards on the beeches — old-fashioned graffiti that remains to this day.
Those trees tell stories. On the trees that were cut when they were mature and thus slower to grow, I can still make out dates from the early 1930s. Some of the handiwork, less legible as the tree grew, obviously came from much earlier times. There are names; some of them belonged to the hoboes, while others I recognize as locals who probably carved the tree when they were in their teens and 20s. Now, they are in their senior years and their arboreal artwork has aged less dramatically than they.
How a beech tree looks when beech bark disease has run its course. This
tree is dead.
It won’t take long for the disease to take its toll on local forests, wiping out one of our most abundant trees and our best storytellers. It’s disheartening to think that the trees that should have outlived me won’t, taking with them the interesting connection I have to my family and the dozens of hardworking men who made their way across the region in hopes of overcoming the economic realities of their time.
Not one to let memories — better yet, history — die so pitifully, over the past few years I’ve taken photographs of the various trees and their carvings that remain. If you have a stand of beeches, especially one along the towpath or the rail line, you should take the time to do so, too, to familiarize yourself with the people who once called our fair community “home,” be it for years or just one night.
By capturing the images on film we can maintain the carvings for the ages, just as their artists had intended.
Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he won’t carve “Bob loves Bernadette” on trees because, unfortunately, the trees might not last as long as their love. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the 31 July East Niagara Post