Beech tree leaves on a tree infested with beech leaf disease. Credit: Mike Moisio

To the Editor:

One hot, windless summer day a couple of years after we moved to Wilton, an unusual thump, deep and heavy enough to interrupt a conversation, drew me outside. What looked like a decent-sized tree, maybe 40 feet tall and 20 inches across, lay across our driveway. It had clipped the house on the way down, thankfully hitting no one and damaging little more than a gutter.

The thing is, that “tree” was just a fat branch of another, much larger American beech tree towering over our front yard. This weighty branch had fallen straight down with no warning, leaving a large scar about fifty feet up the remaining trunk.

American beeches, for those of us who don’t know, have smooth gray bark. Occasionally you’ll see one with carved initials and hearts near the base. They typically hold some of their papery leaves through the winter. In late summer, starlings flock from one to the next feeding on their nuts.

When we decided to move to Wilton, one appealing thing (among many) was the preponderance of shady, wooded lots. I love having trees around our property. I love that our kids are still young enough to range into the forested corridors that separate and bind the houses in our neighborhood without raising eyebrows. I love the autumn and spring transitions that are merely weather but for the fall and growth of leaves. Beech trees make up a big part of all that. We have at least 20 on our two acres.

Anyway, we had an arborist examine the stately giant still shading an entire section of our side yard. He pointed out the relatively sparse foliage at the top of the tree and an additional damage point from years before. He surmised, rightly as it turned out, that the tree was hollow much of the way up to that damage point and told us it was dying. It was the biggest tree on our lot and I loved it there in the front next to the driveway, but it had become dangerous to us and to the house.

Mustard-bottomed tree frogs I had never seen before littered the driveway as they cut it down piece by piece. We found a baby mouse inside the base of the hollow trunk. The stump was nearly five feet across.

That beech tree was old. We cut it down, but age, lightning, and ants doing their work were the real culprits. Still, the others on our lot range in size from saplings to mature trees, and many of them probably descended from that tree. So it left a hole in our little ecosystem but also a legacy. That legacy now appears threatened because those younger beech trees are dying.

For the second year in a row, I’m noticing the new leaves aren’t coming in right on our beeches. They are sparse, gnarled, and blackened. A quick internet search clued me in to beech leaf disease, which may be associated with microscopic worms called nematodes, and which has spread from Ohio over the last several years. No tree has been known to survive infestation. They typically succumb in just a few years. Now more attuned to them, I am noticing the same symptoms across our town and others nearby.

Improbably, this blight’s arrival on Cheesespring Rd. corresponded with my finishing Richard Powers’ 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory. As part of the novel’s setup, Powers reminds his readers of the American chestnut tree. (You know: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”) In prior centuries that species dominated eastern forests, providing food and wood, but a fungus drove it to functional extinction decades ago.

Perhaps human ingenuity will come up with a way to forestall this parallel outcome with the American beech. The internet tells of a nascent treatment that might work but it’s labor intensive. Even if it does work, most likely, folks who care enough to try it will still, understandably, treat only the trees in their yards, ignoring those tucked away in their woods. And the treatment may not perform up to early hopes. Unfortunately, we will more probably watch innumerable trees in the woods winding through our region turn to skeletons and then holes that will take a century to fill. To this Wilton resident, that feels lousy.

The American beech is by no means the only tree species under threat. Emerald ash borers have decimated ash tree populations. Oak trees are vulnerable to oak wilt, insects, and other pathogens. Beech leaf disease just happens to be the most visible to me. And every single American beech that I encounter has it.

For better or worse, the local whitetail deer herd faces no significant predatory pressures. So they graze our woods mostly unbothered, limiting young tree growth in the process. I’ve found a couple of sugar maple seedlings here and transplanted them to allow them a few years of unhindered growth. When they’re big enough, I’ll plant them more than just a few steps into the woods with protection to help them flourish. Further, this fall and every fall thereafter, I’ll buy and plant a tree already tall enough to survive the deer.

Perhaps my little contributions will help fill the gaps in our woods that are certainly coming. Perhaps others will see value in doing something similar and we can strengthen these sinews that bind our community.

Mike Moisio