If trees could talk, what would they say when we asked for their story? Many of the beech trees in Big Beech Woods are over 200 years old; these trees saw U of L open its doors for the first time in 1846, witnessed the first running of the Kentucky Derby in 1875, survived the floods of 1937 and ‘97, and watched Louisville grow from a city of 4,000 people in the early 1800’s to a busy 1.2 million today. The trees’ resilience is astounding. But as these giant beeches continue to grow and share our space, their smooth, gray bark is sometimes defaced by disrespectful passerby.
Think of the last time you got a papercut, or scraped your knee. Or perhaps you were a little too excited about carving that perfect Jack-o-lantern (we’ve all been there, no shame). You probably rinsed the cut and wrapped it in a band-aid, or possibly got stitches with strict instructions to keep the area clean and free of infection. Soon, the wound begins to heal and eventually is replaced with brand new skin.
Unfortunately, beech trees cannot heal so quickly. Beeches have incredibly thin bark, easily cut with a knife. Underneath the bark lies the phloem, which transports organic materials made during photosynthesis from the tree’s leaves to its roots. The next layer is the cambium, responsible for growth in girth. The inner-most layer of a tree is called the xylem; this layer transports water and mineral ions from the roots to the rest of the tree. When someone carves their name into the bark of a beech tree, they destroy the bark and these delicate inner layers that keep the tree alive.
Because the life of a tree is only bark deep, carving into tree bark hinders the transportation of vital nutrients and water by destroying the microscopic pathways present in phloem and xylem. Lacking the ability to utilize its supply of energy and water causes the tree a great deal of stress, and can shorten its lifespan. The open gash also exposes the tree to diseases and parasites. Beech trees can suffer from beech bark disease; a tiny insect called the beech scale feeds on beech bark, then fungi move in and attack the weakened bark. As the bark dies, more parasites and fungi move into the dead areas, which eventually causes the tree to die. Thankfully, this disease has not yet reached Kentucky, but is confirmed in West Virginia and Tennessee.
Recently, I took a morning hike along Coppiced Woods trail. It was one of the first true fall days, with golden sunlight dappling the ground and cool, clean air. I came across a shock of yellow paint intentionally splattered across a stone wall lining the trail. My frustration at this act of vandalism was tempered by knowing our skilled maintenance team could take care of the situation. The dedicated Parklands staff work tirelessly to remove, repaint, or repair any vandalism that occurs, yet no amount of expertise can heal a carved beech tree. Beech trees will carry the scars of careless people forever. In a society fascinated by tattoos and body modification, it is mistakenly thought that carving into a beech tree is as minimally invasive as a tattoo. Yet this is not the case. Rather than causing beech trees unnecessary stress and possibly shortening their life, leave a positive impact. Consider planting a tree, or volunteering for a cause important to you. Or simply appreciate the beauty of nature and help ensure it is there for future generations.
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