The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Beech Tree Annal

by Mary L. Armitt
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 724-731

[Mary Louisa Armitt (1851-1911) was a polymath who excelled at music and natural history, and founded the Armitt Library in Ambleside.]

(Continued from page 659.)

But in early March, the starling is "taking off," with some success, the lapwing and the curlew, who are just arrived, like himself, from less barren regions, and are spreading hereabouts over marsh and moorland. He can call "art-ta-po-or, poor, poor" tolerably well, while the long whistle of the curlew he does to perfection--almost!

And now come to the beeches other and very irregular visitors--or at least (to be exact) the visit seems to be paid to the rooks in the beeches. These visitors are the jackdaws, who are occasionally seen with the rooks at other seasons, but who will now return with them from their evening promenade night after night in great numbers. Here they are made very welcome to the tree-room about the nests by the otherwise jealous proprietors, who are probably as fond of a gossip as other folk. And the guests sometimes prolong their stay to such an unseemly hour that the light grows dim and the night comes on, and there is a sleepy sound in the cackle that is kept up by the strings of birds upon the boughs. (This sounds like "keck-ku-ku-keck," or half of their own name, jack, repeated with a soft j.) It is possible that they sleep a night or two here, but they never stay to nest about; so that I conclude the large congregation that appears here at this time to be one of the phenomena of nomad bird-life, and that it represents the whole body of district jackdaws lately returned from winter wanderings and just about to break into couples and take to family cares, whether in the "crags," or in the Ambleside church tower, or in the chimneys of its town houses.

As March days lengthen, there is less time for sport in the trees, both for starlings and rooks. These last are now present from early morning to night, and the scene is one of constant commotion and noise. Every variety of rook-cry is to be heard, the double note of hilarity, "ke-yaw" (perhaps the bachelor's), the spoilt jabber of the hen, "câ-câ-câ-câ-câ" as she sits by her mate; the deep masculine "ca-aw" of his reply; and finally the "ba-a" or bleating note that increase until all the hens are sitting. In one middle tree a tournament seems to be going on. There are rushes, attacks and then tumbles of two birds, one's wing in the other's beak, down from the tree-top, down, down through the branches, till close to the bottom they recover wing and get by circuit to the top again, where they are ready for another round! I suspect the bachelors, with maiden rooks in attendance, to be these disturbers of the peace. The old rooks are at their nests, bickering and a little thievish, but keeping mostly to themselves. And when March suns wax hot, what a state of busy-ness all get into! New nests are begun, sticks are being carried. The living twig is required by the rook-builder, just as the basket-maker requires the green sap-filled wand to bend back and forth. And the rook's nest in its first stage is a fair specimen of basket work. Though a few adjacent larch-trees are often resorted to for building-stuff, the beech-trees themselves supply it too. Very comical it is to see the rook amble along one of the larger limbs of the tree till he gets to its outermost twigs and then lean over and try to snap off a feathery end, nearly toppling over himself in the process. Sometimes he does not manage it; sometimes he breaks too big a piece--this is if he has been too timid of his balance and has not gone far enough out, and then, overweighted with his burden, he may have to relinquish and drop it before he attains to his goal. This goal is a site chosen in the upper fork of (possibly) the same tree that yields the twig, but the bird, launching himself into the air from the lower branch, attains it by a wide and spiral flight, and the panting sound he makes, like the getting-up of an engine's steam, proclaims the effort this is to him. Then it is an awkward matter to make the first twigs stick, especially in the smooth, deep angles formed by the branches of the beech-tree, but after two or three have been brought--and they are almost always forked--they can be twisted securely together. But the builders may have other difficulties to contend with, the thieving propensities of their fellows, for instance, as well as a jealousy of the site chosen, which is sometimes persistently manifested. I have known one nest plundered over and over again; first its beginnings were continually impeded, then when its owners had succeeded in finishing it, all but the lining, it was completely ransacked and rapidly carried off, twig by twig, in their short absence. After this the doughty pair of builders began again, taking the wise precaution to remain one on guard always. Yet it seemed as if misfortune were to pursue them (or was it they who had chosen an unwise site?) for a March gale brought that nest down again, when completed once more. But, once again they built, with the happy climax of safely bringing up a brood. Next spring--to follow the fortunes of this couple, the nest had gone, so they started afresh, and, in spite of a few more pilferings, succeeded again, and thereby inspired so much confidence in the rookly breast that another pair drew near, and the structure subsequently became one of those semi-detached residences in which rooks--who are not always unneighbourly--sometimes indulge, the entrance to one house being on a different level and side from the other.

Then rooks are often hindered by the weather. When biting north-easters come back and the hail clots within their nests and makes the lining sodden, they sit by and utter querulous notes. Worse still, when a March gale springs up and tosses the branches wildly, they have to retreat to the innermost sheltered tree, where, as night comes on, we may see the poor birds still clutching the swaying boughs, refusing to desert altogether the nests in so much peril. By morning, probably, two or three of these are down; the bereaved pairs will perch on some adjacent bough, grieving in silence, until the gale subsides, when they will immediately begin again. I have known a gale so late as April 28th that tore the young foliage of the horse-chestnuts to ribbons, and brought down five or six nests with eggs hard-set or young birds within. Then are matters bad indeed, and the forlorn couples retire altogether from the happy scene of family and nursery joys that the next day presents in the rookery, and will perch, tragically motionless and silent, in a solitary ash-tree up the fell. I must add that, while in this storm, nests both old and new--the old weighty with accumulated linings that had become, by wintering, the consistency of peat--fell from the beech-trees, none were found below the single trees of horse-chestnut, wych-elm, spruce and larch in which the birds likewise nest, a fact which seems to show that the deep conformation of the beech-tree's boughs renders it more unsafe for nesting than other trees, and that the birds only come hither because of the scarcity of well-timbered groves hereabouts.

But if all go smoothly and well, the rook-pair gets through the basket stage of the nest, and then the lining, for which rooty masses of moss and grass stumps are plucked up and hens' feathers gathered, and the hen lays the four dark, blotchy, pointed eggs and begins to sit upon them, her mate feeding her meanwhile, and sometimes taking a turn on them himself while she stretches her wings, and all before March is over. By this time snowdrops are faded and all sorts of green things below the trees are putting on their summer garments. Then sprout over the garden beds those few beech seeds--for there actually are some--that have escaped ravening bird and beast. The growing substance bursts the light skin wherein it has snugly out-lived the winter, and first puts forth a foot that securely enters the ground and anchors there. Then the cotyledons rise, as two thick, fleshy green leaves, and the life of the new beech-tree begins, destined, if left in its station, to attain some inches in height and some half-dozen leaves during the summer, and in some seventy years more or so--a trifle in the age of its species--to be capable of bearing flower and fruit itself.

Then the greenfinch comes, though his is but an accidental connection with the beeches, as he neither eats their fruit nor feeds upon their parasites nor builds in them, but simply sings, or perhaps we had better say vocalizes, in their branches.

Then, too, in April the chaffinch takes possession of a low beechen-bough for his station, and wearies us with his song. Then tit-mice go, drawing off towards their cunningly hidden nests in hole of wall or barn. Then baby rooks come out, first as black frog-like creatures, whose squeals are faint as parent-birds come home with food-distended throat, but--unhappily for human neighbours--wax loud and ever louder as feathers grow and throat gets bigger. Then the gorgeous new-come redstart flits through the beeches, singing a strophe as he passes to the nest in wall hard by; then comes the willow-warbler to the low bushes beneath, where he peals forth incessantly his sweet bell tune, waiting only for the spread of foliage above to rise and search there, too, for his insect food.

For it is not till May that the great outer change of the year comes to the beech-tree. A fresh wonder every year is the bursting of this green, so sudden it seems, so magical in its rapid unfolding. Now is the time to come, so long prepared for, and the brown bracts--those many little coverlets that have wrapped and kept their tiny tender contents safe from frost--loosen at the word of force within and heat without, and fall back one by one; the leaves emerge, all tender green, quilted in lines of veining, covered with the softest silken down; they spread and grow, never increasing from the already formed number, till at last, in two weeks' time, the tree is completely clothed as by a gown of green in which its limbs are hid; myriads of little flags are the leaves, that present, layer upon layer, their flat veined surfaces to sun and air. Now is the tree complete, every part fulfilling its function, from the leaf on the topmost tip of its branch, that passes on the carbon extracted from the air down (botanists tell us) through its arteries of branches to the heart of its trunk, right down to the furthest mesh of rootlets, buried deep in the moisture-giving earth. The flowers of the tree, too, that attend to the department of reproduction of the species are up above there, if we were tall enough to see them; they are waving lightly in the wind and need no other agent than it--no colour-loving bee nor butterfly--to effect the union of the two necessary parts borne on separate stalks. It is quickly done, and the oviary swelling for fruit, and when the rooks, that now become invisible to us in their nests beyond a cloud of green prickly nut. The trees' forces, once set free to summer sunshine, work fast. Already in spring-time the first of the four falls of the year to which Mr. Jefferies called attention is taking place. For the soft winds of late May bring the bracts down in showers, the ground is strewn with them, the drive edges are deep in them--the thousands of brown sheaths that kept the buds frost-proof in winter. They are not needed now, nor are the male flowers, since they have done their work, and they, too, will presently fall in light showers of fluffy balls, pink-brown in colour. By this time the slow rooks--aided, alas! by the shooting--have got themselves out of the way, and are feeding their voracious full-fledged youngsters, that lately clamoured on the tree-tops, away in the fields. The Babel of the rooks' nursery is over for the year. And now the thrush that, disgusted with the din, removed himself early in spring for song, consents once more to pipe in the shrubbery for an admiring ear in the house to listen to. But there are other and rarer songsters, too, than his conscious self.

For in May, just at transformation time, comes the garden-warbler to sing the idyll of the beech-trees. Who so capable as he? From the leafy bough he pours forth that song of his, that for liquid flow and depth of tone has surely not any equal. How can his tiny breast sustain it? we wonder, as out of his bower-like ambuscade, where seldom can a glint of his silvery swelling throat and brown head by gained, it gushes forth with scarce an interlude for rest and refreshment.

For there is no doubt about it, the tree repays the bird for his song. He comes to the beeches not only for the shade of the leaves and (we suppose) to speak about their beauty, but for the insect diet with which they furnish him. He is a friend to the tree, in that he feeds upon what feeds upon it. For no sooner is the tree's great cloak of foliage spread than new hosts of insect creatures come to it for shelter and repast. It gives many lower organisms opportunities of life, in fact. Now is born the first aphis of the year, and straightway begins a reproduction of generations that staggers our slower senses, for man's second is the age of the aphis. Presently the sunny air about the lawn is full of shining dots, tiny sparks of light that make the day-light spaces of the garden star-strewn. These are the winged aphides; they have spread their iridescent double wings, yacht-like, and sail in the sun-light, their delicate blue-and-white barred bodies showing not at all. Then do the young and the unwinged aphides that possess a white-fringed back crowd every tender shoot of the beech-trees and line the rib of every leaf; a scramble through the shrubbery, where fifteen to twenty-year-old young beeches are pushing up to the light after their parents, leaves the garments white with fluffy insect dust. Numbers are so great that one wonders that a strength mighty even as the beech-tree's can stand this incessant drain, this sucking of its life-juices by a million mouths, minute though they be.

Then does the "honey-dew" begin to drop, and honey-gathering insects of a high type come to the tree for this, even our domestic bee, so the apiarist tells us, carries off stores to the little white gabled house on the sunny garden slope. As we stand beneath the trees on a hot June evening (when no sound comes from the empty beck) we hear a subdued hum from the myriad fliers above.

And the tree has auxiliaries besides the garden-warbler to help rid it of the pests that take what it does not expressly offer.

Through June the black-cap warbler literally dances through the boughs, making his own reel-like music with flutey throat as he goes, rarely seen--like the hen that "tacks" in the bushes below--except when he halts in open spot to reach a choice caterpillar from back of leaf and so shows the white throat narrowing between dark-sided head. The wood-warbler, too, though he really lives in the oak-tree's shade, will bring his young family for a day's outing in the beech-tree's tops. And the fly-catchers attached to the house are often ready, in spite of a leafiness in the tree that is an objection to this stick and dead-bough-loving bird, to wing out from it for a tasty morsel or two.

How fast go the stages of summer life! Scarce are the male flowers dropped before comes the first squirrel to eat of the fruit engendered by them. How soon does the soft bright foliage of spring first deepen to the dull colour of summer and then pass on to the yellow of autumn that burns with a glory of colour to its death! Coincident with this is the departure of the summer birds, and of these it is the fly-catcher that last hawks in August or early September in the beech-tree's boughs. Then do our home-staying birds draw nearer; the titmice come back to the garden; the dear robin, poet of the autumn, makes the grove's neighbourhood musical with his song; the rooks return with fondness to their trees. Now free from family duties, careless of the winter before them, they make merry over the feasts of harvest, of oats and acorns; they hold ringed parliaments (going to sleep over a dull debate, as is natural) in the sunshine of shorn autumnal fields; they come in jocund swarms to the beeches, calling joyously (even naming in their double cry, one deponent insists, the house to which they are attached), and then start valley-ward for those aerial evolutions that last sometimes till dusk deepens to night and the harvest moon has risen, solemn and big and yellow, over the opposite hill.

Autumn is here; the leaves begin to fall, the last fall is imminent, and the Annal has been told. Yet is one year not as another in the tree's life any more than in the human life. Such an enormous output of fruit as has been described is the result of several years' storage of matter in the tree, and does not occur every year. A summer of drought fosters the aphides and the higher insect forms, while it diminishes the nests in the rookery, for worm food is then hard to get, and the birds are driven to thieve the eggs of stray laying hens.

Proofread by LNL, Aug 2020