Elegy for some gentle giants

The gentlest of all giants is in trouble in southeastern Connecticut. One by one the Copper European Beech trees are coming down. Most of them are older than anyone alive today, and losing them will impoverish the landscape we presumed was a beautiful fact of life.

Until recently, beech trees have been the ultimate survivors, defying hurricanes and nor'easters and lucky to live here, where woods afire are rare. Beeches plant their feet like elephants, with a wide, low center of gravity. Like elephants they are clad in pale gray that varies from smooth to wrinkled at the joints. They rarely topple on anyone or anything, but if one fell in the forest surely someone would hear it, or feel the earth shudder, and mourn.

Their crowns have added magenta and deep purple to the treetop vistas of early buds in spring, and their coppery leaves strike up the band among the green notes. Lately, however, many beeches have been budding in spring only to be showing bare branches by summer. Fungus is to blame in many cases, but researchers in Ohio published an alarming report in January saying they were not sure what is weakening the trees to the point of being unable to fight back.

Southeastern Connecticut has so many copper beeches because property owners thinking generously of generations to come planted them in the 1800s — not only on mansion grounds such as Harkness in Waterford but in the front yards of modest neighborhoods. One of the most massive dwarfed a tiny ranch house on Willets Avenue in New London until this year, when it gave up the ghost and needed more than a day to be taken down.

What we also have, for a few more weeks, is the Connecticut Champion Fagus sylvatica "Atropunicea," or Copper European Beech. The Connecticut Tree Registry maintained by the Connecticut College Arboretum, aided by volunteers with tape measures and cameras, gives it ID No. 152006, a circumference of 303 inches, a height of 83 feet and an average spread of 82 feet. Those stats, compiled in 2016, give it a total of 406 points and the heavyweight crown.

The tree's human custodians are the town of Waterford and the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. They know the beech to be more than 180 years old. With the help of arborists they have tried to save the champ from fungal damage that is an inherent danger to a trunk that is really five or six smaller trees growing as one. Rain in the hollows, fungus follows.

The tree has another claim to fame besides its championship points. Under its shade and out of stagecraft necessity 55 years ago, the O'Neill developed its now famed model of giving plays a reading, scripts in the hands of the actors. For the first readings of great American plays like August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" audiences watched from the basic bleachers under the copper beech.

Soon it will be too risky to gather people under the tree; it will come down and there will have to be a new champion. The O'Neill plans a "Beech Party" fundraiser Aug. 3, before that happens. The good news is that a twin copper beech a few yards away is in good health and under the care of the arborist. Next season the show will go on, not just at the O'Neill but, we hope, for the region's beautiful beeches.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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