Down South: Leaving Your Mark
By Tom Poland
Of all the trees down South, beeches and white birches gets picked on the most. The love sick, the egotistical, the passerby, and all manner of folk love to carve sentiments into the trees’ vulnerable white bark. Arboreal graffiti I call it. The temptation’s just too much. People feel compelled to leave their mark. I’ve yet to do that, though if I have I don’t recall it.
In my sojourns across Georgialina I’ve come across beeches and birches with many a name, initials, and whatnot carved into them. I suppose if a tree can have tattoos, then many a beech and birch do. Tattooed trees. Some are lightly scarred. Others heavily. I recall a tree standing near the path to Badwell Cemetery covered with carvings. Seems if a tree is isolated … somewhere in obscurity, the more likely it is to provide a canvas for knife-wielding folk. A bit of privacy is essential to do your work. Of course, trees aren’t the only place people leave their mark. Sit at a railroad crossing and watch the cars roll by … lots of graffiti … often quite clever. People leaving their mark.
Back in March, my brother-in-law, Joe, and I were checking out some aquatic plants growing in the family pond. Or beaver pond. Or mine hole, which it is. Manganese. We walked the edge of the water and as we did I asked Joe if the old birch tree still stood, the one with initials in it.
“Sure,” he said and he led me to it. Yep, it’s still there although the years and elements have split its top. Even so, it has a new tree growing up from one of its roots, a shoot destined to go under the knife in decades to come.
I hadn’t seen the tree many a year. Somehow on my walks to the pond, I never made it to the eastern edge where the tree has long stood. When I saw it, I got a shock. Somewhere down the line, my dad carved his initials, “JMP,” into the tree. Seeing those initials meant more than you can imagine. You see, Dad died back in 2003. Come this November 15, it will have been fifteen years since he left us.
As far as I’m concerned this birch with his initials (and my niece’s) amounts to a monument. My dad’s clothes are gone, many of his tools are too, and his house is nothing like the comfortable place he called home. Much of what he left as reminders of his time here just doesn’t exist anymore.
Aunt Vivian once said that just before a funeral God sends a storm to wash away the departed’s footprints. Initials carved in a birch, however, endure, and seeing them brought my father to life again, if only for a moment. Yes, he succumbed to the temptation to leave his mark, but I’m glad he did. As I studied his work, I stood where he had stood, where storms long ago washed away his footprints. For that brief moment, a tree connected Dad and me one more time.
Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.” Find more columns at www.tompoland.net.