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Macon Telegraph: Carvings are a Real Day at the Beech
This article originally appeared in the Macon Telegraph on May 14, 2012:
By Ed Grisamore
KATHLEEN -- It is human nature to want others to know we were there.
So we mark our trails, stake our spots, sign the registry and dedicate a memorial to that moment in time.
Kilroy Was Here.
We leave handprints in wet concrete and draw hearts on sidewalks as a profession of love. Some folks spray-paint graffiti on bridges or express their feelings with Sharpie pens on bathroom walls.
Even troglodytes were compelled to leave hieroglyphic text messages in their man caves.
John Trussell is a self-described “avid beech tree reader.” He has been drawn to the carvings on these trees for more than 30 years.
He calls them “early pioneer message boards.”
“I look for them the same way some people look at gravestone markers,” he said. “It is a way to immortalize yourself in nature in a small way. ‘This is my name. I was here.’”
John has discovered carvings deep in the forests at Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area in southeast Houston County. It is one of his favorite places to hang out. He frequents the 13,212 acres. He takes Boy Scouts, school groups and others on nature hikes. He often hunts there.
He found his first historical carving while exploring the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge in Jones County. At the base of a giant beech was a Civil War-era carving with the letters “JARAR,” followed by the year 1862. He believes the name might have had a connection with a family member or slave from the nearby Jarrell Plantation.
That piqued his curiosity, and he’s been on the lookout ever since. He has located between 15 and 20 with various markings, mostly dates and initials.
They are more than just tattoos on tree trunks. They are scripts of living history.
Anyone can pull out a pocket knife and carve their initials on any old tree. But a day at the beech is best. Before the development of paper in Europe, beech wood was often used as a writing tablet. The words for “beech” and “book” are the same in early English, German and Swedish.
The trees, which have life spans of 150 to 200 years, can be found growing near springs and streams. So they provided natural and convenient notebooks for some of the early settlers in Oaky Woods, who would stop to drink or bathe in the creeks. (And didn’t have apps for iPads.)
With penknife in hand, these folks would express themselves in the grains of soft wood, providing a hand-carved historical marker for posterity.
Several years ago, John came across markings on a beech tree near a stream about 100 yards from a dirt road at Oaky Woods. The tree was majestic and tall, with a circumference of about 18 feet.
Although he estimated it to be close to 200 years old, he referred to it as the “Centennial Tree” after he saw the date 9/3/12 chiseled in its side. With the 100th anniversary of the anonymous carving approaching, he had planned to organize a ceremony.
But when John took me there Wednesday, we were shocked at what we discovered. The tree had fallen since the last time he had cut a path to admire its history and beauty.
“It’s sad,” he said, running his fingers along the outline of the carving. “I had hoped it would hold on a little longer.”
He wasn’t sure whether it had toppled because of insect damage or a lightning strike during a storm. Only the black bears and wild hogs of the deep woods would have been around to witness its downfall.
It brought the age-old question: When a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
“When this tree fell,” said John, “it fell with authority.”
He plans to cut out the section of bark with the carving and have it on display at the Oaky Woods check station.
Fortunately, another carving he wanted to show me was still there. In 1933, a man named Searcy Jenkins selected a shady spot beside a creek bed and sketched what might have been a self-portrait into the tree a few days before he contracted pneumonia and died.
It is still possible to distinguish the arms, legs, eyes and nose of a man above the date: 1933. It’s a little on the mossy side, so let’s just say he is now a hairy man.
There also are carvings of bear paws and a moonshine still. (John found remnants of the still upstream.)
The Georgia Nature Conservancy considers Oaky Woods the “third wildest” property in the state behind the Chattahoochee National Forest and Okefenokee Swamp.
John is planning a free public hike to view the carvings Saturday, Dec. 8, at 9 a.m. Other stops along the 1-mile hike will include a champion swamp chestnut oak, a limestone ridge that is estimated to be 65 million years old (where a whale bone was found) and the grave site of Col. Abner Redding, who was killed by Sherman’s troops in the Battle of Griswoldville in 1864.
For more information, call (478) 953-9320 or e-mail email@example.com. Updates on the hike can be found at saveoakywoods.com.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.