The Message:  Beach Tree Musings  
   May 15, 2003 

Last Sunday I took a neighbor for a walk through Chase Creek Woods. We were on a south-facing slope, below the big chestnut oak, with a grand old beech on the opposite side, and I mentioned an older beech, now gone, that I had known since a boy. I described the careful lettering, unchanging on the ancient trunk: "A. R. Arnold 1878," and "R. H. Arnold 1885."

My neighbor asked, "Why did they carve on a beech tree?" I said something about the smooth, unchanging bark, but he interrupted me. "No, why did they put their names on a tree?" It was a good question. I quickly thought about the uncertainty of life years ago, and gave some answer, but I realized it wasn't enough. Perhaps I should have simply said, "It was a message."

A message? For whom? I might have said, "For you."

Boys carve initials on trees, often carelessly, or too deep, so that the tree heals the wound, and the bark cracks. Those letters weren't like that. You could still see the scratch marks where Alton laid out his work. He was nearly twenty-one, still on his father's farm, and he had a good knife, sharp, and he used it well. The letters were as neat as the tombstones at the church where his father had donated the land.

Seven years later, Robert added his name below his half-brother's. He was fifteen. Perhaps it was his first good knife, one which he had saved for, and bought at his uncle's store three miles up the county road. Or maybe it was an old knife, but sharp, and he took special care to cut his letters as neatly as his brother's. No doubt he had been by the tree many times. It stood midway on the 100-perch line. The line began at a double sycamore at the head of the ravine, and continued down the valley to a big poplar near the marsh.

Those trees were on the 1856 deed. His grandfather John Arnold had given the 292 acres to Robert's father, "Out of love and affection" and "To further his advancement in life." His grandfather had died before Robert was born, but his father had told the boys about him, how he fought in the War of 1812, and came to Broadneck as a young man. Robert had seen his grandfather's grave, over at the old homeplace, many times.

So, Robert cut his letters as neatly as his older brother, and that may have been reason enough. For Alton, there might have been something more. Of course, there are many reasons for leaving your name, and we might compare the rationale of Union soldiers in Richmond's Libby Prison with those who cut into the soft brick at Pohick Church, where they pulled out the pews and stabled their horses.

Visitors could once climb high in the big wooden dome of the old Maryland Statehouse, look out across the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore, and add their names, by knife or chalk, to the many others. Their lettering wasn't too large, and the date was often added. It was a happy adventure, and they left a bit of themselves, even for their own satisfaction.

For Alton, it was the family farm; the old beech testified to that, and Alton announced, as the oldest son, "This is Arnold land." But we might suppose that there was something more -something that, even for a hard-working young farmer, provided an inspiration on that day. Perhaps it was an October day - we don't know that, but perhaps - and the afternoon sun slanted through the old woods as it does at no other time. The great chestnuts, ancient even then, stood along the slopes and ridges, and squirrels were cutting in a nearby pignut, in golden leaf.

At such a time, life is good. Cutting your initials is a statement, born of your feelings at that moment. No doubt Alton, like those of his day, was keenly aware of the transitory nature of life, and left a message, to readers unknown, that he had lived, and that he was a capable person - "See my letters!" And, also, he tells us that life is dear, a blending of young manhood and the sweet ecstacy of youth. "Shall you ever know such an October afternoon?"