Take on Nature: Beech, the mother of the woods

Stephen Colton

AS dawn dissolved the bleakness of a January morning on the local brae, a great tit thrust out its song from the bare beech tree, genetic information prompting the bird's response to increasing daylight.

Although spring is some way off in human eyes, the natural world is already anticipating and preparing for its return. Along with some exploratory, cautious birdsong, cosy sunken bulbs tentatively push their stems beyond the surface of the soil, and blue tits investigate assembled nest boxes. The beech tree's perfectly formed new buds also await spring.

This beech, of the copper variety, stands tall in my garden, much too majestic for its small setting, I think, but greatly treasured, having come as a sapling, 40-plus years ago from the Baronscourt valley, Co Tyrone, and passed through a generation of in-laws to finally settle here.

Although the beech is a native of Asia, North America and many parts of Europe, it is now naturalised and very widespread throughout Ireland. With its dark green oval shaped leaves, the common beech, like its relative, can live for several hundred years and grow to a height of 40 metres.

The Dark Hedges, a corridor of ancient beech trees in Co Antrim have been made famous by their inclusion in the TV series Game of Thrones, their dome shaped canopies attracting tourists from far and wide.

Although a non-native species Fagus Sylvatica provides important shelter and food for wildlife. The floor under its crown is home to a variety of fungi and mosses as is its bark. Its seeds or 'mast' are eaten by finches, mice, and squirrels while hole nesting birds may use old dead wood in the tree.

In centuries past beech mast was also used to fatten pigs. Reflecting on a beech tree very special to him, English poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote in Blunden's Beech "this of local beeches was the best …. I'd sometimes rest/ Contentful on the cushioned moss that grew/Between its roots."

More recently, writer Thomas Pakenham, in his wonderful book Meetings With Remarkable Trees (1997), says of the tree: "When God made the beech, he made an architectural masterpiece, joining in one design the strongest form with the most delicate detail."

Ancient peoples must have also revered it too as the tree was associated with knowledge and wisdom, and especially of the written word. Thin slithers of beech were written on back then, forming some of our earliest books.

The old English and Norse words for beech were 'boc' and 'bok' from which the modern word 'book' comes. In Irish mythology, Ogma, a prominent member of the Tuath Dé (tribe of the gods) and considered a god of poetry and writing, wrote on slender slices of beech bark. Some even credit him with inventing and writing the Ogham Alphabet, letters represented by marks etched on stones and trees, used to write primitive, old Irish words.

As I looked at my mighty beech tree, or 'crann feá' in Irish, I admired its spreading branches spiralling upwards to the sky as if in praise of those ancient tribes who honoured it, using its precious wood as pages to record knowledge from the past for generations of the future.

Hours later, after hearing the singing great tit, deep in the woods of Castle Archdale, I heard the rapid drumming of a great spotted woodpecker, before watching its silhouetted frame take off and finally alight on a huge oak.

This rapid-fire hammering of wood with chisel beak, another activity and mark of readiness from our natural world for the season of spring.

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