Speaking for the Beech Trees in a Time of Loss

The following essay (a 15-20 minute read) is a version of one of many pieces of academic writing that has kept me too busy to blog for the past while. This piece is particularly personal, delving into creative ways of facing grief and other lessons learned working with children at a local nature preserve. I am posting it here in memory and honor of my mum, who passed away June 26th, 2023. She would have wanted me to share it.



There is a necessary wisdom in the give-and-take of nature—
its quiet agreements and search for balance.
There is an extraordinary generosity…
There is no moment too small in the world.
Nothing should be lost.
Everything has a purpose,
and everything is in need of care.

Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest


A few months ago, at the beginning of summer, I read these words out loud at my mother’s graveside, words that reminded me of her—her generosity, her care, no moment too small. Knowing my fondness for trees, my mother had given me Simard’s book for Christmas, a compelling memoir of the author’s groundbreaking research on forest interdependence—how trees communicate and cooperate through complex fungal networks. Forest interdependence was a timely, life-affirming theme—I had a fast-approaching commitment back home to lead an eco art workshop for children at a local nature preserve’s ecology camp. It was a truly profound privilege to accompany my beloved mother on such an excruciating but sacred journey of love and letting go. But as full as my heart was, the rest of me was depleted after several weeks of witnessing the ravages of cancer and sharing palliative care duties. Being with tree kin and the fresh exuberance of children would be good for me.


Cranberry Lake Preserve is my go-to place of restoration and solace, a richly storied land originally inhabited by the Munsee Lenape, in what is now called Westchester County, New York. Its high-quality bedrock was quarried to complete the construction of the nearby Kensico Dam in 1917 which millions of New Yorkers depend on for their clean drinking water. The preserve has been operated by the Westchester County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation since 1967 when it was officially designated as a Biodiversity Reserve Area.2 Wild cranberries do indeed grow in the boggy parts of the lake. Every summer at the ecology camp different age groups of children experience the wonder of a diverse array of forest and wetland habitats, trails, and various hands-on educational activities which promote six camp values: community, inclusivity, respect, safety, fun, and growth. My art workshop—a practicum component of my interdisciplinary graduate studies—aimed to do the same.


I was privileged to feel welcomed in my pursuits by the preserve’s delightful curator, Kristina Hayek, whose wealth of ecological knowledge and experience educating youth informed many of my decisions. This autoethnographical essay, infused with some of my visual and poetic reflections, is born from the entwining of different shades of personal loss due to disease, namely my mother’s cancer and Beech Leaf Disease. It engages both the vulnerability of children and beech trees and what relationship of care might grow between them in a nature preserve camp art workshop setting. The goal of my workshop design was to explore how making art outdoors in a group setting might nudge children towards gaining a sense of place, an understanding of interdependence, and agency to effect positive change. In this reflexive account, I consider how my own sense of place and agency has been enhanced through the experience with these children, revealing deeper grief-driven motives and insight into healing praxis. The call for climate activism is urgent as the loss of biodiversity grows, but equally urgent is cultivating emotional resilience in the face of this and other losses—an ability to embrace an intimate quality of life where moments are momentous and grief is recognized as a portal to the comfort of being part of a larger, more-than-human story.


A little over a year ago I began noticing the growing number of tree tubes at Cranberry Lake, each with its own laminated tag, explaining its purpose:


This was upsetting. I have a soft and familial spot for the American beech, Fagus grandifolia. They have thin skin, as do I, so I consider them kin. I relate also to their marcescence, most visible on understory saplings through the winter—the way their papery, pale-orange leaves cling to branches, refusing to let go until spring buds nudge them off. I have photographed and sketched the grey, elephantine trunks and roots of beech trees many times. They are a wonder to behold, the young ones and the old, even as they decay and give themselves away.



American beech trees, one of the most widely distributed hardwoods on the continent, produce nuts at around 40 years old, providing quality sustenance to a whole host of species including black bear, deer, marten, squirrels, chipmunks, and various birds. In the 1800s, vast amounts of beech-dominated forests were cleared for agriculture, contributing to the extinction of the passenger pigeon which relied heavily on the nuts for food. Larger trees, both living and dead, offer safe cavities for many small animals. Humans also consume beech nuts and make syrup out of the sap. Its wood is used for things such as paper, pallets, flooring, and firewood. The commercial value of its wood is not as high as other hardwoods such as oak or maple, but ecologically speaking, a threat to the American beech is a threat to the entire Eastern forest.3


Beech Leaf Disease (BLD) was first discovered in Ohio in 2012 and has been spreading rapidly throughout the Great Lakes area, New York, Pennsylvania, and New England ever since, and this comes on top of the already well-established, devastating Beech Bark Disease (BBD) which arrived in Maine via Nova Scotia in the early 1900s. BBD is the result of a scale insect infestation, which creates fissures in the bark allowing a certain fungus to enter and kill the tree.4 One of the qualities that endears me to this tree is how it can send up ‘sucker’ shoots from its roots, creating stands of clonal children in family-like formations. These are a pleasure to sketch. But when the mother trees are diseased, so are their clonal saplings which form an unpenetrable understory thicket if unmanaged, crowding out other species and reducing biodiversity. Frustrations for Kristina Hayek as curator reflect humanity’s dangerously lagging response to climate change overall. “Problems aren’t a problem until they’re a PROBLEM,” she bemoans. “We know now that we need resources, funding, and materials to do what we can to mitigate the loss our forests are going to face once our beeches actually go. It’s been one loss after another: from Chestnut blight, Spongy moth, BBD, BLD, to Spotted Lanternfly, our forests are under stress and the time to act is now, not when it’s too late.”5 Meanwhile, Hayek and her team does what they can to steward their precious corner of the world with tree planting, tubing, and trying to educate the public about what is going on right now in their own back yards.


A number of American beech trees live at Cranberry Lake Preserve, and two of those live atop a certain outcropping of gneiss (nice) rock at the lake’s edge where waterlilies bloom in warmer months amidst a stand of phragmites, those mightily invasive plants which at the end of the day are undeniably photogenic, swaying the way they sway, bathed in sunset gold. It could well be that my beech friends are actually clones grown from the roots of a mother tree long gone. Each has earned personhood as far as I’m concerned. Each with a different set of man-made scars. Each with their own exposed and serpentine roots reaching and running like rivers over the rocks, interlacing and facing what comes of my paper and pen. This gneiss little place has been my sanctuary for years.



I missed witnessing the spring leaf-out this past year. More important to me was bringing my art supplies and laptop to Toronto to share with my dad the journey of tending to my mum’s fast-declining health and increasing discomfort. Thanks to a team effort of family and health care professionals, she never had to leave her home. It was a many-weeks-long good-bye. Late into the nights before she passed away I attended to my work and school obligations, the latter including the aforementioned workshop design. I developed a ‘Make Your Own Pocket Forest’ activity with real tree twigs and paper decorated with both natural found items and hand-crafted designs. As book art, it would be portable and could unfold to be a self-standing, mini-diorama of the preserve or a section of woods. Well clearly I wanted one of these in those dark hours. My mum was glad for my ecologically-minded studies and the healing she knew this would offer me. Her mind was ever sharp. But as can commonly occur with end-stages of cancer, my mother had ‘cachexia,’ where the body wastes away. She was tiny to begin with, except for her smile. Oh, what a thing to witness, this disappearing body that I did my best to cradle, the one that once carried and cradled me.


a quieter breath
at last, no pain
the tiny vein on her temple
settles into mystery


Back home at Cranberry Lake in mid-July, the forest was now hot, humid, and green. My boots sunk willingly into the leaf litter and dewy loam as the familiar trails held me like a mother does, singing wood thrush songs. I expected this balm, but knew I might also find what I dreaded: evidence of Beech Leaf Disease. Sure enough, just like the internet photos, beech trees of all sizes all over the preserve had darkly striped leaves, leathery, curling, recoiling. My heart sank further as I clambered up the rocks to greet my familial beeches. Of course their leaves, too, were diseased. Dark, opaque, and sparse. Many had fallen, crisp and brown on the rocky ground at my feet. I wanted to call my mum and tell her all about all of this. I wiped my cheeks. Love tears, she called them. It was a flood of love. For my loss and my family’s loss. For these trees and all the others like them across the Northeast that would not be long for this world, as I had known it would be with my mum when her cancer had spread.



sweet grief, marcescent leaf,
sweet little paper thin thing, a wisp,
my mother, his bride, a whisper
in the dark, darling, i am here


If only my flood of tears could quench some small piece of a world on fire. I gathered a handful of the dried-up beech leaves. Perhaps the only truly quenchable fire was right here. In my hands and heart, which are, after all, pieces of the whole. I began arranging the leaves on the flattest slab of gneiss in a circle, then I found a few prickly beech nut husks to place in the center. I kept going with whatever else was lying around and in the space of a few moments of meditative flow, there it was: the first nature mandala I had ever made. A simple, imperfectly symmetrical design and remarkably cleansing way to honor my grief. I recalled the artist Chris Jordan’s stunning film Albatross, and his exquisitely heart-wrenching mandalas of bird skeletons and feathers, surrounded by the colorful pieces of plastic that they had confused with food. Jordan has a lot to say about grief:

I think that what is paralyzing, overwhelming, and constricting is not the feeling of despair and grief; it is our resistance to feeling those things…But when we actually feel those things, surrender to the feeling, then it moves through fast, like a storm passing across an island. You see it coming, and then the tears pour down, and it moves on through. And on the other side is almost always clarity and joy.6

How could I, or anyone else, be able to inspire others without a wellspring of clarity and joy?



I met with my curator friend the next morning to commiserate about BLD, see how summer camp was going, and review my workshop plans. She appreciated my pocket forest activity and how it aimed to get the ‘creative camper’ kids (ages 9-11) creatively engaged with the land. I worried about my idea to incorporate real twigs in the design, which might be beech twigs, which might travel elsewhere to children’s homes. I had learned that moving beech wood from its original location was ill-advised. Kristina’s response was matter-of-fact, and kind. The disease is everywhere in the county and beyond. She wished that what I was asking mattered. “It’s a drop in the bucket.” There was little relief in this, though, and I resolved to be careful going forward. She then showed me what the youngest, ‘happy camper’ group had done the first week. They had shared a read-aloud of the classic picture book The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, and discussed how the story applied to their beech trees at Cranberry Lake Preserve.


I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.7

― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax


They had talked about how tempting it is to carve on the smooth bark, and how people don’t realize the harm this does to the trees, making them more vulnerable to getting sick. This was quite concerning to the campers, so a counselor suggested they could write letters to people ‘speaking for the trees,’ which the kids were excited to do. As Kristina explained, “It’s hard for the little ones to completely understand BLD, especially since the concept of a nematode is pretty foreign to them, but it was a great way I thought to start to get them caring about the trees.”8 I could not have agreed more. Their poignant messages were laminated and gently tied around the trunks.



Dear Peapol, Pleas do not carve the trees, trees give you oxegent.
With no trees you will die so you shold aptysheat trees.


You should not right on beach trees because it hurts the trees,
and I would not want somebody to carv there name on me.


Please don’t carv your name on the tree because the tree give us fresh air.
So if we don’t have air we will die and I don’t want to die.


The night before my first workshop session I triple-checked my inventory, counted my pencils, paper, and lengths of pre-threaded hemp cord ready for binding the pre-scored and hole-punched other sheets of paper. 14 sets of everything for 14 kids. I had extras. I had a motley assortment of other items including black walnut ink homemade from the tree in my backyard, reed and feather quills, my hand-carved rubber stamps of beech leaves, and a couple of finished examples. The workshop activity was designed to be completed in two days of a week, each day a one-hour morning session. Week one was somewhat of a pilot ‘test’ and weeks 2 and 3 were adapted according to what was learned the first week, which was plenty. My utter respect for teachers and camp counselors increased a hundred-fold throughout this experience. The ‘pocket forest’ making activity proceeded relatively smoothly, though some of the paper folding and binding steps were too hard for many of the kids to do on their own even after I simplified the process. I showed them novel ways of working with paper, crumpling it up to get rock texture and ripping intentionally to shape the landscape. Their eyes widened with these instructions. Crumple it up? Tear the paper in half? The land is rough and crumpled, too, I explained, with its hills and valleys. I think they got it. Other aspects were completed with confidence such as making rocks with torn pieces of crumpled paper and crayons, and drawing trees using a quill and tree ink.


My sample pocket forest


I was particularly moved by how this camper reflected on the younger campers’ ‘speaking for the trees’ activity.


It struck me, as I stood back for a moment to take it all in while the kids were busy chatting and coloring, that these kids had been quite compliant in following my step-by-step lead, and that perhaps having the kids piece together the pocket forests in a big circle at the end—to reiterate community and connection—was too rushed, the kids understandably antsy to hit the trails. When I asked them what was the most fun aspect of the whole activity, one kid said using the quills to write and draw with the black walnut ink, because It was like in Harry Potter. Ohhh, if only! Foremost teachers of Forest School pedagogy Marina Robb and Jon Cree make an important point: “Developing our self-worth, agency, resilience and inner resources is enhanced by adults who can share power and not seek power over children or another person.”9 In the diorama-making activity I certainly didn’t ‘seek power’ over the kids, yet perhaps my carefully pre-planned orchestrations didn’t allow enough space for sharing common ground, grounded in the actual place they were situated in, beyond the picnic tables full of curated art supplies. Then I remembered my mandala. For weeks two and three, which would be bringing fresh crops of kids, I resolved to simplify the pocket forest design and add on a mandala activity the whole group could work on together. Watching the kids at work, I could also see my own longing that the bare twigs would become full with healthy-looking beech leaves. I had even supplied pre-stamped coffee filter paper leaves they could fasten with twist ties. Did I want to recreate the forest I was losing? Was I simply processing my own ‘landscape nostalgia’ and personal loss? 



I tried bringing up the fate of the beech trees with these kids. Most of them had heard of BLD, likely thanks to all those tree tubes in the preserve. But they had big enough concerns of their own. Public nature preserves and camps would seem to present ideal points of leverage for promoting ecoliteracy and pro-environmental behaviors in their wider community, which was assuredly one of Kristina Hayek’s curatorial mission and a key aspect of my own studies and art practice. But the struggle to implement this is real. A ‘preserve’ by its very definition is a bounded area, it is a precious, more ‘wild’ space separated from the human-built, mechanistic environments. And such a separation, even as I describe it here, is antithetical to ecological thinking. Moreover, people visit nature preserves to experience the beauty and wonder of local flora and fauna—not to be reminded of, let alone schooled about mass extinctions and other planetary crises in which human behavior is devastatingly implicated.10 Concerning children, the Cranberry Lake camp handbook agrees, advising counselors: “Remember that these children have been in a potentially difficult school environment for the past nine months. Summer camp is a time to get them outside having fun.”11


It turned out that making mandalas outside with kids was indeed fun, but also something more. The kids were excited and seemed proud of their work. I presented the idea that each of them be responsible for gathering a collection of one particular type of item of their choosing, such as green leaves, or yellow ones, or acorns, or pebbles, or twigs, then with a group conscience they would integrate their items into the emerging radial design of the whole. This approach seemed to simultaneously honor individual agency, community, inclusivity, and interconnectedness. Even one of the counselors got into it, finding two snake skins from the nature center to place within the circular design. One boy actually thanked me personally. Another wished he could show his mom. Kristina later shared some encouraging recollections of her own:

I very much remember some of the kids at the end of the day STILL collecting whatever ‘their’ material was, maybe just to see how much they could find, but I loved that they started to notice all the acorn caps, or small grey rocks, or red leaves, etc. We have this thing naturalists call ‘green blur’ when you’re walking through the woods and everything looks the same. But by working on plant ID, you gradually notice more things you can identify… and the things you can’t. Then you notice something you identified in another part of the park last week, and it doesn’t just blend into the background anymore. I feel like the mandalas were not only an excellent lesson in teamwork, but also a great precursor to working on that green blur.12



As a tree-loving artist I was, for all intents and purposes, just along for the ride, with more to learn than any of the children I was purporting to teach. I knew how to bind a book and make black walnut ink—i had that on them, but not much else, or so I felt. In the group mandala making, I was just one more child at play in the greater whole of being. How fascinating that while this art practice epitomizes ephemerality, I have found in it a visceral sense of rootedness. And as poet C. D. Wright asserts in Casting Wide Shadows, her deeply-researched ode to beech trees: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”13 The practice of making nature mandalas has indeed taken root—I have since made a few more, finding it a comforting practice in this age of ‘solastalgia,’ a term associated with the climate crisis which was coined by Australian scholar Glen Albrecht in 2005 to describe “a form of homesickness one experiences when one is still at home.”14 I agree with Robb and Cree that “[c]oming to terms with death and loss is an essential tool in life and one which we are often under equipped to support in our culture… We bear witness in the outdoors to the ever-changing seasons and weather, reminding us of how things die, change and find life again.”15 And I take more of Chris Jordan’s wise words to heart:

There is time to grieve what is being lost; and on an even deeper level, to feel our connection with what is still here: the incredible beauty and miracle that surrounds us all in every moment, to feel our love for it all. False urgency tends to strip us of that capacity, and make it feel irrelevant, when in fact slowing down and reconnecting with what is in our hearts may be the most important and transformative thing we can do.16



There was a moment I will never forget in the last overnight of my mother’s life, when I was right beside her in the darkness, not sleeping, and her arms, as frail as they were, reached out to me and wrapped around my head. She wasn’t able to talk or swallow at this point and I wondered if she needed more medicine or a moist sponge or a new position. Then I realized her hands were calmly and gently stroking my hair as only a mother could. Her only need in that moment was to comfort me.


There is no moment too small in the world.



Much of this world, with its particular species we have learned about and loved, including humans, is in varying states of collapse. What lies beyond is unknowable, but honoring the grief, fear, and even despair we share with others who matter to us here and now matters. The ‘creative campers’ I had the pleasure of working with and all other young children, including my grandchild, will have to reckon with a new stage of the Earthly journey where those six camp values—community, inclusivity, respect, safety, fun, and growth—will become more essential than ever. Growth of the spirit, to be clear. Meanwhile, I will continue to celebrate the beautiful marcescence of grief and the life that springs from loss, and will sing praises to all those who find their own ways of speaking for the trees.



More to come around the bend…



1 Suzanne W. Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.

2 “Cranberry Lake Preserve.” Accessed December 15, 2023. https://parks.westchestergov.com/cranberry-lake.

3 Backyard Ecology. “American Beech (Fagus Grandifolia),” January 31, 2018. https://www.backyardecology.net/american-beech/.

4 Christopher Stephanson, and Natalie Ribarik Coe. “Impacts of Beech Bark Disease and Climate Change on American Beech.” Forests 8, no. 5 (2017): 155. https://doi.org/10.3390/f8050155.

5 Kristina Hayek, personal correspondence, Nov. 30, 2023

6 Stef Craps and Ida Olsen Marie. “Grief as a Doorway to Love: An Interview with Chris Jordan.” American Imago 77, no. 1 (2020): 109–35. https://doi.org/10.1353/aim.2020.0006.

7 T. S. Geisel (Dr. Seuss). The Lorax. New York: Random House, 1971.

8 Kristina Hayek, personal correspondence, Nov. 30, 2023

9 Jon Cree and Marina Robb. The Essential Guide to Forest School and Nature Pedagogy. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2021.

10 Rebecca A. Johns and Rachelle Pontes. “Parks, Rhetoric and Environmental Education: Challenges and Opportunities for Enhancing Ecoliteracy.” Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education 22, no. 1 (March 2019): 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42322-019-0029-x.

11 Cranberry Lake Handbook document, Westchester County Parks

12 Kristina Hayek, personal correspondence, Nov. 30, 2023

13 C. D. Wright. Casting Deep Shade: An Amble Inscribed to Beech Trees & Co. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2019: 22.

14 Glenn Albrecht. “Solastalgia.” Alternatives Journal (Waterloo) 32, no. 4/5 (2006): 35.

15 Jon Cree and Marina Robb. The Essential Guide to Forest School and Nature Pedagogy. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2021.

16 Stef Craps and Ida Olsen Marie. “Grief as a Doorway to Love: An Interview with Chris Jordan.” American Imago 77, no. 1 (2020): 109–35. https://doi.org/10.1353/aim.2020.0006.

2 Responses to “Speaking for the Beech Trees in a Time of Loss

  • So moving, Karen. I am filled with -stalgias for all that you’ve lost, I’ve lost, we have all lost. Yet the forest reminds us that in every stage of decline, a purpose is served that ultimately nourishes new life. We can’t see, in our human-time, what larger pattern and next life we are part of. How lucky your campers were to share in your process, and processing, of grief and loss and life and care, the better to play their role in the mystery.

    • Thank you my friend. Ever grateful for your support, wisdom, and eloquence. And that I get to share the mystery of this journey on Earth with you.


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