“The Cape May Carving Tree,” by John Riddle

John Riddle

Essay by John Riddle

On a recent trip to Cape May, New Jersey, I needed a few moments to get out of the sun.  It was a hot and humid day, and the shade from three nearby trees was calling my name.  As I stood beneath the center tree, I noticed there were about three dozen assorted carvings on its trunk.  Some were the usual “MJ loves TR” type of carvings, but others were simply single letters.  I wondered whether their carvers had not found true love just yet.

I must also confess that I had no idea what kind of trees they were.  Unless I see a palm tree, a Christmas tree or a tree with an apple on it, I’m stumped (pun intended!) by tree identification.  My wife is an expert in all things pertaining to gardens and nature, so when I asked her if she knew what they were, she replied, without any hesitation, “crepe myrtles.”

According to Southern Living, “the crepe myrtles are among the most satisfactory of plants for the South: showy summer flowers, attractive bark, and (in many cases) brilliant fall color make them year-round garden performers.”

There’s no mention of how many of these trees around the country find themselves on the receiving end of pocket knives, engraved with strange messages that are important to the person doing the carving but cryptic to everyone else.  I wondered who was the first person to carve initials or symbols onto a tree trunk?

Researchers have been studying tree carvings, also known as “arborglyphs,” to understand people, traditions, and cultures.  One thing they have discovered is that the lifespan of a messages carved onto a tree correlates with the lifespan of that tree: When the tree dies, so do the messages. In other words, you won’t find stumps or rotted wood with arborglyphs on them. The life or livingness of the tree sustains the message.

Recently I came across The New Forest project in the U.K.  Apparently, it was designated a national park in 2005 to “protect and preserve it for the nation to enjoy for generations to come.” The New Forest project created a searchable database with information regarding the dates, pictures, poems, and royal marks that can be found throughout the special forest.

The “King’s Mark,” a broad arrow head, is among the most common tree carvings and was used to identify trees reserved for building Royal Navy ships.  There are also trees with concentric circles, commonly known as “witch marks,” which were carved to keep away evil spirits.  During the Second World War, U.S. Servicemen who were stationed at the nearby airfield RAF Stoney Cross were known to have carved their initials and dates of service into the bark.

Horticultural experts caution against carving into trees because of the potential for damage.  But that warning falls on deaf ears. People will continue to carve their messages into trees.  I am certain social media will abate this practice.  After all, isn’t it easier to pull out your pocket phone rather than your pocket knife to confess your love?

 

Comments

  1. taramasih says

    I enjoyed this essay and you brought up some new research I had not found myself while researching arborglyphs. I did so for my novel MY REAL NAME IS HANNA, set in Ukraine during WWII. They were also called “Witness Trees.” And carvings were found in Poland from prisoners probably being forced to do labor in the woods. They are found in Native American culture and in Europe, likely from sheep herders. They were a way of marking trails and leaving messages for others. Yes, they are not good for most trees but I guess they helped humans survive in the wild! Thanks for the post.

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