Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Exploring the Niagara Frontier: Stories told by beech trees coming to an end

This smooth-barked tree shows what a healthy beech 
looks like. (PHOTOS BY BOB CONFER)
The Erie Canal towpath was once the interstate for itinerant workers — hoboes, if you will — who traveled from town to town in search of their next farming or handyman gig. While doing so, they frequently stopped over on my family’s farm, which butts up to the canal. It was an attractive spot to set up camp because of the fresh water they could drink from a brook that runs through our woods, the same brook from which they ignited gas for cooking (there is a reason it’s called GASport).

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.

Two beeches show the efforts of my family. One has neatly cut into its bark two words: “Ray Confer.” My grandfather probably did that when he purchased the farm in 1955 when he was six years younger than I am now. He has since passed, so that tree has always offered a comforting portal to a time gone by. The other tree in question displays my dad’s boast of having hunted his first squirrel. He likely carved that when he was just 12 years old. That tree is like a trophy, one as impressive as the deer heads on his wall.

How a beech tree looks when beech bark disease has run its course. This
tree is dead.
Sadly, all of these trees will, quite soon, no longer be able to tell their stories. About a half-dozen years ago, beech bark disease reared its ugly head on the Niagara Frontier in volume, bringing with it its deadly one-two punch. First, an insect attacks the bark. Then, the wounds left by the insects are infiltrated by a fungus. It doesn’t take long for the once-beautiful bark to crack then fracture completely, falling off the tree. The malnourished beech topples over within a couple of years of its first symptoms.

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

From the 31 July East Niagara Post

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