The Message: Beach Tree Musings
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.
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
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?"