Are You an American Beech Tree or a Willow? Letting Leaves Inspire Compassion

Monday, April 3, 2023

The strongest oak of the forest is not the one that is protected from the storm and hidden from the sun. It's the one that stands in the open where it is compelled to struggle for its existence against the winds and rains and the scorching sun.  
-Napolean Hill

This particular quote may refer to an oak tree, but it could also be accurate if it instead referred to an American Beech Tree.  For some time now, I've been intrigued by the leaves pictured above - so intrigued that I've taken a healthy collection of photos, mostly in Grafton State Park.  But it wasn't until this weekend that I did a little research to discover exactly what specific tree they are from and learn a little about their characteristics.  

The American Beech is a slow-growing tree that grows an average height of 50 – 70 feet with a trunk diameter up to three feet across. Taller trees may be found in shady forests, with some reaching heights over 100 feet. It is best recognized by its smooth silver-gray bark, some likening it to elephant skin, that can be observed throughout its lifespan, which can exceed 300 years. More mature trees, having reached a height of about 50 feet, produce fruit - beech nuts which are edible.  One of the reasons these trees are so hardy and long lived is due to the fact that they can tolerate shade, in fact, they can live with almost no sun at all.  Small offspring often grow among large maples or oaks, shorter living specimens.  The American Beech's strong nature allows it to outlive their larger neighbors, taking over where maples and oaks have reached the end of their lives.   Their leaves have serrated edges and grow in an alternating pattern on their branches.  The thing I find most fascinating about the American Beech is that their leaves remain all winter and don't drop until the new leaves emerge.  This interesting quality is what makes them so visible and I think, beautiful, all winter long.  If you find yourself in their presence - take a moment and listen to the gentle rattle they make in the wind.
Now I didn't decide to suddenly become an arborist and share the story of the great American Beech Tree, although it may seem so.  I want to share the analogies about these dainty but mighty leaves of winter.
For a while now whenever I see the lacy, papery remnants of the American Beech leathery green summer presence, I can't help but be a little impressed at their fortitude.  Imagine for a minute these paper-thin, wrinkled leaves clinging onto their branches throughout the harsh New York winter.  Imagine what it must be like surviving the frigid temperatures, the gusty wind, the icy rain, heavy snow - sometimes all at one time challenging the strongest and the weakest inhabitants, month after month.  And yet, this past weekend, the first weekend in April, so many leaves remained on their branches, waiting until they are replaced by the next generation.

  These determined leaves remind me of the strong people I know.  You know the people I mean, you have these people in your life too.  I'm talking about the people I know that face challenges each and everyday, the people with chronic illness, or chronic pain.  I'm talking about the people who have faced unspeakable tragedy or repeated bad luck.  It's the people who seem to brush off whatever hardship life throws at them and continue to just keep on keeping on when others might be inclined to give up.  It's the people who can't seem to catch a break, even when they are trying their hardest. Or the folks that have given nothing but the best of themselves to everyone around them but are still faced with a deadly diagnosis or the loss of a loved one.  It's the women who long for a child but pregnancy never happens, the mom whose child is developmentally challenged, and the many who struggle with mental health.  So many of those people somehow manage to keep putting one foot in front of the other, willing to face another day.  They hang on, just like these mighty leaves through the storms as they await spring.

I think sometimes those of us who are blessed with small life annoyances, minor aches and pains, and petty worries might learn a little from the Beech tree - and from the people around us who aren't so blessed.  We might do well to judge a little less, understand a little more and dole out a little compassion instead of impatience.  It might be humbling if we take a moment to remember the people we know whose life isn't such a walk in the park, the people who probably don't complain or call attention to their hardships but instead hold fast to their faith and their determination.  Those people... they deserve our admiration and our kindness and maybe even a little 'way to go' praise.

Are you an American Beech or do you know one?  This post is for you.  If you are one, know that you are admired, you are loved and you are in someone's prayers.  I hope the next time you happen past an American Beech tree you remember this post and the people you know that embody strength, tenacity and perseverance. 

“We can learn a lot from trees: they’re always grounded but never stop reaching heavenward.” 
- Everett Mamor

For more posts like this one, words of inspiration, thought provoking essays, check out my blog directory under the category, Food for Thought.

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