Beech trees are found throughout most of the world and are very long-lived, sometimes living several hundred years. Given their longevity and their beauty, it comes as no surprise that beech trees factor prominently in legend and history. Curtiss Clark of "The Field Notebook" feels that beech trees act as time-travelers, often bringing clues from the past into the modern day.
Origins of the Name
Beech trees are often associated with books and writing; indeed, their history is peppered with such associations. Writing on beechwood originated with Iron Age Germanic tribes, who would often inscribe magical runes upon beechwood tablets. This practice transitioned into writing upon beechwood tablets for less magical purposes, and from this, the first books were formed. In fact, in early English, German and Swedish, the words for "beech" and "book" are the same.
With their importance to early Germanic tribes as well as prehistoric Celtic tribes, who often worshiped at altars dedicated to beech trees, the tree is rich as well in symbolic association. The thick root systems of beech trees make them inhospitable neighbors, and other plants and trees cannot thrive in their vicinity. Coupled with a bad taste that deters most wildlife from eating them, beech trees have earned the negative reputation of being selfish and ambitious, in rivalry with other trees and forest residents. More positive virtues, however, are also ascribed to the beech, including tolerance, knowledge of history and gentle criticism.
The genus name of the beech, Fagus, means "to eat," providing clues about the tree's early importance as a food source. The nuts of the tree, called beechmast, are edible both by humans and many animals. Historically, beechmast was used to feed poultry and game animals, such as pheasants and deer, although during times of hardship and famine, humans ate beechmast as well. Continuing the theme of reliance upon the beech during desperate times, the German army during World War I tried unsuccessfully to replace tobacco with beech leaves.
Invention of Moveable Type
Fitting for a tree that once shared its name with the Middle English word for "book," the beech tree also played a role in the invention of moveable type, which made printing books easier. In the 15th century, the Dutch inventor of movable type sometimes cut letters out of beechwood to entertain children. When he wrapped the letters in parchment, the letters left impressions on the parchment and gave him the idea of movable type. Before that point, when books were printed, each page was carved from a separate block of wood, making it a laborious and time-consuming endeavor.
Beech in American History
When European settlers arrived in America, beech trees were among the first trees cut down because they generally indicated fertile soil that was good for agriculture. Beechwood, being easily carved and bent, was also used by settlers for flooring and furniture. Nor did beech trees in America escape leaving their mark on literary history. Called "graffiti trees," beech trees were favorites for carving initials upon and, given the long lives of the trees, these were often discovered a century or more later. The most famous "graffiti" beech tree grew in Tennessee and was once carved by Daniel Boone: "D. Boone Cilled A Bar On Tree In Year 1760." When it fell in 1916, it was estimated to be 365 years old.