Life of a tree: The Oak Bluffs American beech

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American Beech tree at Featherstone. —Stacey Rupolo

About as elephantine as a tree can be, the Oak Bluffs American beech towers over the ancient way known as the Old Back Road to Oak Bluffs. This American beech is found at the Southern Woodlands Reservation, a Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission conservation area. Measuring some 234 acres in size, the Southern Woodlands Reservation lies between Lagoon Pond and Sengekontacket Pond, and is one of the largest contiguous conservation areas on Martha’s Vineyard.

The American beech (Fagus grandifolia) grows in a range that extends across eastern North America, from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, to eastern Texas, according to the U.S. Forest Service. On Martha’s Vineyard, beech trees are quite common, and one finds beeches in all of the Island towns. With bark that is gray and smooth, the trunk of the American beech truly resembles the legs, and perhaps the trunk, of a pachyderm. Green in the summer, the leaves of the American beech turn yellow in the fall and then the color of a tarnished penny. The beech leaves often cling to the branches through the winter. There they rustle in the winter winds and wither, lightening to a tan hue and resembling curled parchment.

This particular American beech grows beside the Old Back Road to Oak Bluffs. As part of the cross–Oak Bluffs trail system, this ancient way still leads the rambler all the way to the town center of Oak Bluffs. If one walks south along this road, one crosses Featherstone Farm and the Featherstone Center for the Arts. If one walks north, one traverses the Southern Woodlands Reservation and ultimately reaches Trade Wind Fields Preserve, Farm Pond Preserve, and — via sidewalks — Ocean Park.

Stout and massive, the Oak Bluffs beech measures two feet in diameter. Its thick stem reaches perhaps 10 feet upward before the tree branches. In early November, some of its leaves are still a summer’s green, others have turned yellow, and others have already turned brown. Across the ancient way grow black and white oaks, but on the west side of the road, beside the beech and in a dell beneath it, grow nothing but other American beeches. Even moss finds it hard to grow next to the beech.

That this old beech finds itself surrounded by almost nothing but other beeches is no accident. F. grandifolia is a tree of strategy. Patient and persistent, the beech succeeds by waiting. A typical grove might begin with a single tree that sprouted from a single beech nut. This initial tree grows in the shade of other trees, likely oaks, and bides its time. The beech waits for its neighbor to die, and when it does, it assumes that place in the forest canopy.

At the same time, the shade-tolerant F. grandifolia casts a deep shade around itself, so deep that almost no other trees can take it. The roots of the beech send up “suckers,” or sprouts, which also grow into mature trees. The Oak Bluffs beech is surrounded by a number of young, thin, pole-size saplings, each of which may well have sprouted from the roots of the large mother trees. With shade and patience, the American beech is the climax tree of the undisturbed Martha’s Vineyard forest.

The Oak Bluffs beech is at least a century old. An increment bore taken from this tree revealed wood that is white in color, with tightly-spaced growth rings that were very faint. As this increment bore is six inches long, that means that it took 100 years for this tree to grow to be a foot in diameter. As the Oak Bluffs American beech is two feet in diameter, one can surmise that the tree could be 200 years old.

At its heart, the tree is rotten. The wood is red and mushy, and therefore prevents one from determining precisely how much older than 100 years this tree is. Incidentally, the fallen hulk of a massive, neighboring beech foreshadows the likely fate of the tree that is the subject of this article. Though that mighty stem toppled, the tree itself survives, living on in the trees that have sprouted from its roots.

Timeline

1816

On Election Day in 1816, Democratic-Republican James Monroe defeats Federalist Rufus King. A team of oxen pulls a wagon along the Back Road to Oak Bluffs. A squirrel scrambles out of the way of the hooves, and drops a beech nut along the west side of the road. Oak leaves fall upon the nut, obscuring it, and the nut germinates the next spring.

1850

Chief U.S. cartographer and West Tisbury farmer Henry Whiting publishes the detailed, invaluable trigonometric survey map of the “Land and Waters of Martha’s Vineyard.” This map may be explored in detail at two websites — mv1850.com and mvlandandsea.com — created by David Foster, Brian Hall, and their team at the Harvard Forest, and based on a scanned version of the 1850 map owned by Nancy Weaver and David Dandridge. The mv1850.com website reveals that the Oak Bluffs beech was on the western edge of the southern woodlands, next to a farm field. In 1850, the 34-year-old beech had just borne its first substantial crop of beechnuts. Blue jays break apart the burs and scatter the nuts throughout the forest.

1874

The Oak Bluffs beech is a stout tree measuring perhaps six inches in diameter. It has smooth, gray bark, and slender branches that stretch to about 30 feet in height. It grows beside another stout beech, also about 6 inches in diameter, that stands just to the south. White and black oaks grow to their east. President Ulysses S. Grant visits Oak Bluffs, addresses an admiring crowd of thousands from the pulpit in the Tabernacle, and enjoys the Grand Illumination.

1880

Oak Bluffs, then known as Cottage City, secedes from Edgartown. The new town has become an important African-American summer community. On Election Day, the leaves of the American beech turn yellow. Oak Bluffs voters pass by on horseback, en route to electing James Garfield president of the United States.

1884

According to the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, the Flying Horses carousel is moved from Coney Island to Oak Bluffs. Voters elect Grover Cleveland as president. The American beech sends up its first root suckers, just to the west, green-leaved sprouts growing in the shade.

1916

The beech has now grown to a solid foot in diameter. It stands about 40 feet tall, and it has a straight, single stem without a major bifurcation for its first 20 feet. It has begun to send up root suckers, and it and its fellow to the south have begun to make a beech grove of their neck of the woods. Woodrow Wilson is elected president of the United States.

1920

Able to vote for president for the first time, women pass by the 104-year-old beech on the way to cast ballots. Warren G. Harding is elected, and the tree has grown about a quarter-inch in diameter over the past four years.

1936

In 20 years, this patient tree grew only 1½ inches in diameter, and now measures 13½ inches in diameter. In the middle of the Great Depression, the American people re-elect President Franklin Roosevelt. Julie Russell, ecologist for the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission, has chronicled the history of the Southern Woodlands Reservation in her 2011 management plan for this land. She reports that in 1936, Darius Norton sold the land beneath the American beech to poultry farmer and police officer Harold Webb.

1939

The American beech has a banner growth year, owing to the fact that its neighbors have been knocked down by the Hurricane of 1938.

1951

Harold and Ruth Webb create Webb’s Campground. Campers stroll in the shade of the grove of American beeches.

1972

Arlene Bodge and Ruth Douttiel buy Webb’s Campground. The American beech is 16½ inches in diameter, and perhaps 50 feet tall. Voters head to the polls on Barnes Road, or County Road, rather than the Old Back Road to Oak Bluffs, and re-elect President Richard Nixon.

1996

Just to the south, the Land Bank creates Featherstone Farm, and Featherstone Center for the Arts is established. The Old Back Road to Oak Bluffs now hosts walkers heading to pottery classes. Americans re-elect President Bill Clinton.

2002

A massive tree, the American beech now measures 23 inches in diameter. A closely divided Martha’s Vineyard Commission perhaps determines the fate of this tree when it votes against the Down Island Golf Club proposal to create a course here.

2005

The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission buys the land beneath the tree and creates the Southern Woodlands Reservation.

2016

The Oak Bluffs American beech is a distinctive tree standing on protected conservation land along a protected and scenic ancient way. President Barack Obama watches the Oak Bluffs fireworks during the summer. The National Museum of African-American History and Culture opens, and has a “Power of Place” exhibition on Oak Bluffs. On Nov. 8 Oak Bluffs voters headed to the polls to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Oak Bluffs voters chose Secretary Clinton; the nation elected Mr. Trump.