It is the colour of joy. The bright fresh green of beech leaves, freshly opened, thrills my heart with happiness. I do not know at what time of day I appreciate them the most. When I walk out in the morning with my hound before breakfast, and the air is cool and the grass dewy, I fill my lungs with the verdant air and it is intoxicating. I feel chthonic. In the heat of the day, when I am tired and hungry before lunch, I rest my eyes in their gentleness and am soothed. I have walked out with the hound again just now – the sun will be setting shortly – and their quality has transformed once more. I am succoured against the coming night. There is an old church service, Compline – a remnant of the monastic tradition – the final service of day. It contains the words, ‘God grant you a quiet night and a perfect end.’ As I walk in beauty towards the night, I walk with those words within me. Like joy, the pleasure is fleeting; the leaves soon darken and dull. But, like joy, I would not be without them. The beech leaves pictured below are so new that they retain a coppery scale or two from their buds. The rest are shed in profusion, sloughed off like so many skins or carapaces, and silt up the borders and corners of the garden: even they are beautiful, in their own way.
Fagus sylvatica, common beech, ‘Queen of the Wood’ to the Oak King, will grow to 30m/100′, given time and space. It is not just a tree for a large garden though, as, when closely planted, it makes a very fine hedge. A particular virtue of the young beech is that the old leaves are not abcissed in autumn. Cutting a hedge maintains the trees in a juvenile state of marcescence and the coppery foliage is wonderful in the low winter sun. It sounds too, like an Aeolian harp when the wind blows through it, whispering softly.
Beech conceals its strength behind a delicate veil. The silvery bark is surprisingly rough and unpleasant to touch. The pale wood is dense, heavy, close-grained, and burns brightly in the hearth. It is a pleasure to cut and split, and the smell of the green wood is sweet and wonderful. Its strength endures harsh treatment, and the sawn wood can be bent with leverage and steam, and has been used traditionally to make hoop-backed chairs, most famously in the UK by Ercol. It is no accident that the Italian immigrant Ercolani established his factory in the chalk-beech heartlands of Buckinghamshire.