There is a sadness in Provincetown’s East End Dwyer Woods today. It is a beautiful morning, with bright sunshine and enough breeze to make the mosquitos work for their blood meals. All around me there is greenery: everything is leafing out and flowering, the red maples and the oaks and the sassafras, the understory shrubs and ground cover.
But not the beech trees. Their new leaves, usually bright green spears, are instead pale, tending to yellow, and puckered, curdled, crumpled, withered, with all their ribs showing. The branches have a hangdog aspect. There is an overall lack of vibrancy.
These trees are showing symptoms of beech leaf disease, caused by a microscopic nematode worm that affects only beeches. It is a condition relatively new to our area. Kai Potter first wrote about it in these pages (Sept. 22, 2022), and I discussed it in a column last Nov. 10. Last year I found a few scattered cases in these woods; now, one year later, I can’t find a tree unscathed.
I contacted a state official about the disease, and she told me that small young trees may succumb in a single season; larger trees may take a few years. Leaves, of course, provide trees with nourishment. There are no practical means to combat this new disease. Scientists don’t know how it evolved nor whether there is an anthropogenic (human-related) cause. Birds most likely transport the worms.
Such a rapid breakout is startling, but I am also startled by my sadness. Of course, I am a tree hugger, and beeches are eminently huggable. They may well be my favorite tree. And I am not alone; botanist Donald Culross Peattie (A Natural History of Trees) called it “the finest tree to be seen” back in 1948. Many people love its smooth bark (too many carve their initials and messages in it) and the way its leaves filter the light in our woods. Beeches create a warm and comfortable atmosphere in which to walk.
But more than that, they are part of the Cape’s ecosystem. Beeches have been here for untold centuries and play an important role in the ecology of our local forests. I do not know exactly which local fauna eat their fruits — beechnuts — or which find refuge and shelter in their canopies or nest in their branches. I do know that beeches were a critical source of food for the extinct passenger pigeon, which fed on the trees’ mast to sustain their prodigious numbers.
What if all the beeches die? One less species. The planet sheds some every day. Something will surely replace them. We can take the long view. We lost the elms and the chestnuts, and life went on. Commercial Street, lined with large trees now gone, is still here. Cape Cod lost its cod; we almost lost all our whales and may very well lose the right whale. Although none of us relishes change, we will adapt. But in the short view, what will we have lost? What will we do when the beech trees are gone?
In the quiet of the woods, punctuated occasionally by bird song and calls, I keep vigil with the damaged beeches. I honor them and damn the parasite — must it take every one? — even as I know this could very well be a natural event. Loss is part of life. But losing such a large part of our life is depressing. Nearly 30 percent of all the birds in North America have vanished since 1970, and right whale numbers are perilously low, but I do not have those victims in front of me right now. Nor can I hug them.
We have lost and continue to lose human populations in this world. Think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust, the recent catastrophes in Turkey and Syria. I mourn for them, but the animist in me wants to let these beautiful trees know that I am full of sorrow and fearful for the days ahead without them.