Beech tree with Arborglyphs
This post is part of a series of posts on Sacred Trees in the Midwest/Eastern Americas and their various uses. For earlier posts see: Eastern White Cedar, Sugar Maple, Hickory, and Eastern Hemlock.
When I was a child, my grandfather would often take me and my cousins into the woods to learn about plants, animals, and trees. He had a place he would take us on the edge of an old field and a deep wood. We were so young when he took us, that after he died and we grew much older, we failed to remember where “grandpa’s field” was. On eventful day many years later when we were in our late teens, we found the spot once again. There, using small pocket knives, we carved into the beech trees at the edge of that field, leaving messages of longing and love for our grandfather who had passed. The beech trees welcomed these carvings, and 15 or s years later, the trees still hold those carvings. What I didn’t know at the time was that we were engaging in a very ancient—if not controversial—tradition: the creation of “arborglyphs” for honoring those who have passed, carving words into the species tree that is most associated with learning, words, books, and knowledge. While carving up a tree is not something I would do today given my spiritual path, this arborglyph practice epitomizes many of the esoteric qualities of the beech. To have a deeper understanding of this incredible tree, let us now explore the physical, medicinal, edible, magical, and mythological aspects of Beech.
About the Beech
Beech trees are of the genus Fagus (Fagacae) which contains anywhere from 10-12 trees in Asia, Europe, and North America (depending on how one classifies them). The tree that I am discussing and specifically working with is Fagus Grandifolia, the American Beech. The American Beech (I’ll just call it Beech from here on out) tree grows to typical heights of 66 – 115 feet tall, and prefers more shady. It is often found in forests with hemlocks, maples, and birches, and like sugar maple, cannot tolerate pollution, soil compaction, road salt, and other contaminants. Like hemlock, it prefers rich soil and wetter kinds of areas. These two growth habits makes beech a true tree of the forest rather than that of the cities or towns, although very occasionally, you might find one in a more residential area. Beech is a rather slow-growing tree and takes time to establish.
If you sit below beech trees, they produce a lovely warm green light, although their foliage is quite dense. If you end up in a grove of hemlocks and beeches (and these trees are often found together) you’ll be amazed by the variation and patchwork of light upon the ground—deep blue from the hemlocks and light green-yellow from the beeches. Beech trees have very light green, thin leaves that are almost like paper. The sunlight easily passes through the leaf, creating this lemon yellowish-light green tapestry of light. It really is a sight to behold.
Laying under the Beech
Beech trees produce tasty seeds, but they can take up to 40 years to produce their first crop. The seed itself, which can be eaten after peeling back the husk and inner shell, is wonderful tasting, reminiscent of a cross between a pine nut and a sunflower seed. If you can gather these in enough quantity (not always an easy task, especially if there is squirrel competition), you can eat them in salads, make a nice beech-nut pesto, or just enjoy them as a snack raw or toasted. Even finding a few seeds in the forest and snacking on them raw can really make your day!
Young beech leaves are also edible and taste very mild, almost with a slightly sweet kale-like flavor. I like to enjoy them in salads with other spring greens. When the leaves get older, they get tougher and are not as enjoyable (like most edible leaves), but are still edible in a pinch. In the Wisdom of the Trees, Gifford (p. 150) also explains that Beech leaves were used as an alternative to tobacco by the German army in World War II and the nuts were roasted and used as a coffee substitute. I haven’t tried the beech in either of these last two forms, but its good information to know.
Beech is a very tall, straight tree, and the wood is very dense, light-colored, and thick. Of all of the trees I’ve studied thus far, Beech wood has one of the widest ranges of uses: from culinary to artistic to practical. Beech wood is often used to make drums and handles on guns and other tools (it is seen as a good, less expensive alternative to walnut). Beech wood is used often in preparing foods or beers—in some parts of Europe, beech is used to smoke sausages or other meats and beech wood may be used to smoke and dry out malt for beers. In the USA, even major beer manufacturers use beech as a “fining” agent near the end of the brewing process for flavor enhancement. A type of rayon fabric called “modal” is made from the chemically processed and spun cellulose fibers of the beech tree—note that this fabric, and other rayons are not very biodegradable, and much of it ends up in the oceans—so not really a great use of this tree. Finally, beech-nut fattened swine was traditionally known in Europe to be the absolute best tasting pork and ham. Even Culpepper mentions this in his entry on beech—and suggests that the beech nuts are particularly nourishing to animals that eat them.
Beech and the Arts
Artists, particularly those in the 17th and 18th centuries—including Rembrant, Lorrain, Cozens, and Gainsborough—used beech soot mixed with water to make a transparent ink/pigment called “soot brown”, or bistre. The soot was gathered from a chimney after burning beech wood, and then mixed with water, and later diluted with water for whatever effect the artist wanted. The color is dark gray-brown with a hint of yellow. I have yet to experiment with making this ink (I currently lack a chimney from which to gather soot!) but I could see it being a lovely compliment for other tree-based inks that I have made, including buckthorn, elder, and walnut!
Grove of Beeches
I have discovered that Beech also has a use in hand papermaking. In the winter, the beech trees often retains some leaves and they turn a papery ivory color as the winter progresses. The leaves typically are not dropped by the tree till spring. I use these winter beech leaves in papermaking—they don’t contain fibers enough to make good pulp, but they are great added to something else. The whole, feather-thin leaves, are beautiful layered in a handmade paper. I’m sure there are many other creative things you can do with the dried beech leaves.
Archeologists use the term “culturally-modified tree” to describe human-made carvings and modifications to trees—these trees become artifacts that record messages sometimes centuries after they are carved. Native American peoples and other ancient tribes certainly carved such glyphs in trees—remnants of which can still be found today in some elder Beech trees. To create arborglyphs, three trees are typically used: beech, birch, and aspen, with beech being the most popular due to its light colored and smooth trunk. These arborglyph carvings included both images and graphics, and had, in some cases, substantial personal or cultural significance. As I mentioned in my story opening this post on beech, many people even in the present day choose to carve their sweetheart’s name or their own on beech trees—if you see beech trees frequented by people, they often have carvings. In visiting a local park in Indiana, PA, my current hometown, there was a 270 acre park within walking distance of my home. I saw only one larger beech tree along the many trails we walked—and that one beech tree was carved up by passerby. So many beech trees along pathways I visit suffer this fate.
The bark of the beech is one of the lightest and smooths of the forest, and really does make a nice canvas upon which to create! Sometimes, when I’m feeling whimsical, I’ll take some charcoal chunks from a campfire to a large beech tree and add beautiful patterns to the bark—with permission of the tree, of course. Depending on what side of the tree I do this on and the weather, the patterns can last a long, long time. One set of patterns in a trunk sheltered from the rain are still there after several years! I see this as a more tree-friendly version of carving arborglyphs.
Beech tree with Arborglyphs in Whites Woods Nature Center, Indiana PA
Beech Tree and Sacred Geometry
Examining the beech tree, particularly the seed, through sacred geometry and numerology reveals the magic of the beech. Male and female flowers appear on the same branch (which suggests duality and the connection between the male and the female energies). Beech seeds have an outer husk with little burrs, on it, almost looking like a miniature chestnut husk. When the husk is opened, the magic begins. Beech seeds have an outer husk that opens up in four ways to reveal two tan, semi-hard inner seeds that have three sides each (that is, they are tetrahedrons), placed against each other forming a four-sided, pyramid shaped double seed. So here we have four husk petals, spreading outward in the four directions. In separating the two seeds, we are reminded of the binary, which represents so many things in our world—night and day, male and female, black and white. The shape of the seeds themselves, however, show us the tertiary: tetrahedron-shaped sided nuts, that which is actually consumed. The lessons here are many, and the synthesis of the sacred numbers 2, 3, and 4 are present.
The number 40, the typical time it takes a beech tree to produce nuts, is also highly important to esoteric lore. In many traditions, including traditional Jewish Cabbalism, you would not start your advanced esoteric studies till the age of 40. It is at this point that as a human being you were ready for the advanced work—and it is at this point that the Beech tree begins to bear fruit.
Beech in Native American Mythology
Of all of the trees I have covered so far in this blog, the Beech has the least written about it in the Native American stories—so little that I don’t have any themes to present. Beech shows up only four times in the database of over 2000 stories I am using for this project, and in most cases, its simply present as a “tree” in a story, in the sense that something is done to or that is simply growing with other trees in a fertile forest. Of these four stories, only one is worth noting: the Micmac Creation story. As part of the Micmac creation story, a sweatlodge is created from seven alders, seven wild willows, and seven beech saplings. The lodge was covered with moose, caribou, and deer hides and mud. The lodge is entered by seven men, who undergo purification and come out clean and like newborns. So we see beech as one of three trees holding sacred space for human ceremonial purification.
One more Native American story, however, may have relevance. Interestingly, like the Oak, the beech is the only other deciduous tree in this climate that holds its leaves on its branches till spring and beyond—this has profound implications. Specifically, if we look at the Seneca Legend “How the Conifers Show the Promise of Spring” we see that the conifers hold their needles till spring to eventually defeat the winter and encourage the return of spring. In the story, the Oak, likewise, holds his leaves and stands with the conifers to help battle back the winter. This, to me, suggests that Oak keeps his power even through the winter months when the other trees are resting. The only other tree that I have seen do this in my bioregion is the Beech tree—and yet, its not mentioned in the story. I do think the beech holds a different energy during the winter months. Given beech’s substantial connection to books and learning, and the fact that most studies of any kind take place during the winter months (due to traditional farming calendars that we still have today), I wonder if the beech is retaining its power because the dark months of winter are a time of study, reflection, and knowledge seeking—those aspects which the beech presides over.
The Book is a Beech: Beech Etymology
Scott Cunningham presents the many folk names of beech: bok, boke, buhe, buk, buke, faggio, fagos, faya, haya, and hetre. The first five of the names on his list give us deep insight into how humans have come to use and understand this tree and how this relationship is woven into the fabric of many European languages.
The very first books were made of beech wood, where the beech would be thinly sliced and bound together. A triad of physical connections now exist with the beech tied to books and learning: its ancient connections to the physical book, the creation of bistre from beech soot, and the physical face of the tree used for carvings, a triad of connections to books and learning.
From an etymological perspective, we can see connections between beech and words for literacy/books/writing in many European languages and traditions. In Gilford’s The Wisdom of the Trees, he demonstrates the clear connections in our language between books and beeches. “Boc” was the word for beech in Old English, and later that word became “book.” German, a close relative of English, uses “buche” for beech, which later became “buch” (book); “buchstabe” is the word for alphabet. Finally, “bok” in Swedish refers to both the beech and a book. Woven into our very language is the connection to the beech.
Beech in Western Magical Traditions
According to Gilford, Beech has connections to many deities associated with trees: Ogma, the Celtic warrior god of the Tuatha De Dannan, who is credited with inventing the Ogham. Beech is also connected with Hermes/Mercury (the messenger), Odin (the supreme God of the Norse, who gave the gift of runes), Chronos (the Greek god of Time and cycles); and Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and mathematics. We can see clear themes emerging: the beech associated with divination tools, learning, wisdom, and other kinds of messages.
Traditional folk magic suggests that Beech wood or leaves can be carried to enhance the flow of creativity (so in druidic terms, it has a connection to the flow of Awen). Its also associated with wishes, where one folk magical tradition has a person write their wish on a beech stick, then bury the stick in the ground. As the stick returns to the earth through the natural process of decomposition, the wish will be manifested in the world. A final piece of folk lore suggests that beech is also tied to prosperity, but I had a hard time tracking that beyond Cunningham’s work, so I’m not sure where that theme comes from beyond Cunningham (who I am generally skeptical about).
Beech is sometimes included as an additional Ogham in the original Celtic Tree Alphabet. It is represented as a curly cue and is titled “Phagos.” Since it is part of the last five fews, however, its not consistently used as such. I generally refer to the presentation of Ogham in the Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer, which presents beech as the Ogham Phagos, and, it is connected to lore, learning, education, knowledge and study as well as lessons learned from the past.
A final connection can be see through the ancient poem, “The Battle of the Trees” from the Welsh Cad Goddeu. This is attributed to the 6th century bard and magician Taliesin, who has a very prominent place in the modern druid tradition and who is commonly viewed as the greatest Bard who ever lived. This segment here is translated by Robert Graves from The White Goddess:
The tops of the beech tree
Have sprouted of late
Are charged and renewed
From their withered state
When the beech prospers
Through spells and litanies
The oak tops entangle
There is hope for trees.
In the first stanza Taliesin describes the renewal of the beech tree, which I interpret as the dropping of the dried, paper-thin leaves in the late winter so that the tree can renew its leaves with the coming of spring. This suggests that the beech has a great deal of power during this time of early spring. The second stanza has the beech seems to be using literacy-based spells and litanies to prosper and bring hope to all trees. The beech, as the holder of knowledge, also gives us access to this wisdom and knowledge. The presence of the Oak, another tree of wisdom, further cements this emphasis. What a powerful scene and delightful tree ally we have in the beech!
Beech in the forest
Healing and Medicinal Uses
Culpepper describes the beech as being governed by Saturn. Saturn is connected with overall weakness and chronic diseases, all of the bones, joints, and connected tissues; lung-related issues, and also the skin. So Saturn can help leaves as cooling and binding, which he suggests they be applied to “hot swellings” (in traditional western herbalist’s stems today, the beech seems good as an outer compress for inflamed and/or infected areas that are swollen or hot to the touch). He says you can use the leaves as follows, “you may boil the leaves into a poultice, or make an ointment of them when time of year serves.” He suggests that beech can treat dry scaly skin, dandruff, and other kinds of skin diseases (eczema, psoriasis, or herpes). Another way to use beech for the above conditions is to find water in a hollow of a decaying beech, it can be used for both human and animal to wash away these issues.
The Beech also has a medicinal use of a more energetic nature. The Bach Flower Remedies, a system similar to homeopathy developed in the 1930’s by Edward Bach, includes Beech. This system collects the dew from flowers and then dilutes it down considerably, to leave an energetic signature of the plant as the medicine taken. Beech is used for intolerance of all kinds and the associated issues stemming from that: arrogance/lack of humility, finding fault and blame in others, criticism, condemnation, and a lack of sympathy for others and their circumstances (As described in Vohra’s Bach Flower Remedies: A Comprehensive Study, 2004).
Now I find this interpretation of the Beech particularly interesting, as beech is a tree associated with learning and wisdom (and therefore quite air dominant). The negative qualities of air (intolerance, lack of humility, criticism, lack of sympathy, lack of compassion, and so on) are exactly what the beech cures. So we can see the beech here being associated with the positive qualities of air, and aiding one in balancing the negative qualities of air in their lives.
Energetics and Meaning of Beech
Beech trees have a welcoming energy to them. They physically brighten up a forest with soft light and bright trunks. In my own spiritual work with trees, I have found that beech trees have extremely positive energy that melds well with human energy, that they are always willing to share and teach, and that they are one of the most accessible trees of the forest.
In an earlier post, I described the process of finding the “face of the tree” and using this face to help you connect on a spiritual level. Beeches are the very easiest tree to use this practice with (and the tree that taught me the practice). This is truly a tree that reaches out to humans and has knowledge to share.
Face of the Beech
We are left with so much evidence in for the meanings of this incredible tree. Beech represents:
- Connection to writing, writing systems, literacy, and messages. Beech’s etymological connection to book, and the fact that the first books were made with these trees, and the messages carved into the trees suggest a strong connection to writing and literacy. This tree could, for example, be useful to those who are writers, who are looking to become writers, or anyone who wants or needs to craft a compelling message with words. This tree could be useful to someone who needs to get a particular message out.
- Connection to knowledge seeking, wisdom, and wisdom of the ages. The Beech has a more broad connection to any kind of learning or study. Its power is retained during the traditional months of study and it is associated with gods of wisdom and learning. This tree could be useful to anyone wanting to learn new knowledge, skills, or create new knowledge themselves.
- Connection to sacred human knowledge (sacred geometry, numerology). Beyond knowledge and literacy, the beech also seems to have a particular connection to specific kinds of magical knowledge used and understood throughout the ages. The beech seed itself expresses magical and profound sacred geometry. Furthermore, the tree is able to carry such knowledge on its bark or in beech books. This suggest that those wanting to study magic, sacred geometry, sacred mathematics and numerology, and other such areas would find assistance from the beech tree.
- Connection to Divination and Magical Written Systems (Ogham, Runes): The beech, likewise is associated with magical writing systems and divination practices, especially those employing magical alphabets like Ogham and the Runes. This suggests that those studying these systems or seeking aid from them draw upon the magic of the beech tree.
- Connection to creative expression. The beech tree is connected to forms of expression that require a pen or some other writing instrument. Arborglyphs, the creation and use of bisre, and anything than be preserved on a book page fit this. Artists involved in drawing, painting, sketching, or creative writing.
- Connection to preservation across time. One of the great things that the book did for people was to allow thoughts to be written down exactly and preserved across great distances and time. Pre-literate societies relied on memory and various mnemonic devices to pass on general stories that were reinterpreted over time. With the coming of the written word, spoken language took on new form, to be preserved and moved. The beech epitomizes the ability to preserve our thoughts, feelings, and expressions over great lengths of time. This suggests that those wanting to pass something on, over time, or preserve something seek the aid of the beech tree.
- Connection to lessons learned over time. These might be past life lessons, lessons from an earlier part of your life, or lessons reinforced again and again. The beech asks that you remember what time has taught you, and to move forward having integrated that knowledge and not to make that same mistake again.
I hope you have an opportunity to get to know the amazing beech–truly a tree worth learning from!