Writer Has Never Found a Beech Tree That Had Been Struck
Other Facts and Queries
by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, NJ
published in the Hunterdon Co. Democrat, December 11, 1930
This article, with which I end the year 2014, can be seen as a follow up to Bush’s article previously published here called “Gathering Nuts Was Once an Industry.” There is nothing in the way of genealogy in this article, but it is full of the usual Bush charm.
Does lightning ever strike a beech tree? I do not know but do wish I did. Among the earliest traditional Indian lore drilled into me was this: “Lightning never strikes a beech.” This was usually supplemented by a declaration that an Indian, if caught in a shower, always ran for a beech tree. If asked why he did that, his answer was sure to be something like this: Pointing his finger toward the sky or toward a frowning cloud and then making a zigzag motion, the Indian would grunt out, “No hit um beech.” The white people who quoted from Poor Lo always seemed to have full faith that he knew what he was talking about.
As far as taking the precaution went, I accepted the statement and always chose a beech when practicable. But a persistently doubting spirit led to setting myself the task of proving the claim groundless. I thought that would be easy: just a few weeks or months of looking around would furnish proof sufficient to convince anybody of the error. But up to this time, positive proof seems as far away as ever. From that time to this—a long search for a trifle like that, you may say—I have been hunting for a beech tree that showed reasonable evidence of having been struck at some time, or, failing in that, for some reliable person who had positive knowledge of such a tree. No stricken beech has been found, nor has any witness been willing to declare personal know-ledge of either such striking or such witness-bearing tree.
Many have been interrogated. The response, accompanied by a look of surprise, has generally been a question instead of an answer: “A beech tree struck by lightning—why not?”
To which my answer has been something like this: “I am not trying to explain why not, or even to show that it is not. I am trying to find some proof that a beech tree is sometimes struck.”
“We-e-ll, when I come to think over all of the trees that I know had been hit by lightning, I can’t recall a beech among them!”
So it goes, and still the fruitless hunt goes on. Yet, after all these years of inquiry and observation, and all these failures to secure the desired proof, I still believe that a beech tree might and would, under some conditions, be struck by lightning. But the beech is evidently almost immune. If one must seek shelter under a tree in time of a thunder shower, I join the wise old Indian—wiser in many things than we without knowing or caring anything about the reasons—in recommending the beech as the safest tree known to us.
Observations along this line shows unmistakable evidence of much variation in the liability of different kinds of them. Of all the varieties known to me, the black walnut would be my last choice as a place of refuge during an electric storm. The walnut seems to be forever getting into the way of the lightning or else in some mysterious way to be signaling it to come. Anyhow, there appears to be a great affinity between the two. But I have never seen a walnut tree badly shattered, as so many others are. These two facts concerning the walnut may readily be explained by saying the tree is a good conductor and is gently treated accordingly, while the beech’s practical immunity may be explained by saying it offers much resistance and, if hit, would doubtless be torn to splinters. But that, like so many other “explanations” leaves the real question unanswered.
Destroys Nuts’ Flavor?
In this connection it may be interesting to note that there is a persistent belief that a walnut tree, once struck by lightning never afterward bears good nuts. I do not know that this is true, but fine-flavored nuts borne by such a tree are among the things yet to be found.
Everybody knows that lightning plays some curious pranks. Generally it strikes a tree and runs directly down—unless the grain is twisted—leaving a torn and jagged path but not killing the tree. At another time, the tree may die of what seemed to be a negligible injury. And again, it may shatter a great trunk as if a box of dynamite had exploded at its heart.
I remember, as doubtless many others do, that up to forty or fifty years ago, a fine white oak tree stood on the westerly side of the road from Jacob Gray’s sawmill to Flemington, perhaps 200 yards above Gray’s gate. This had been a landmark through all of my early life. Its clean bole, perhaps three feet across and thirty to the limbs, together with its graceful top, commanded no little admiration.
One day after a hard shower, while driving along the road, I was surprised to see the fine old landmark a total wreck. The top had been entirely torn off some fifteen feet from the ground and buried into the field. There it lay, a most distressing sight, instead of being a thing of beauty as before. The shattered stump looked more like an old-time “splint broom” for scrubbing stables than like the perfect trunk which had been so long admired. Why must that bolt “explode” like a case of nitroglycerine right in the middle of that log? Nobody knows, but there was the unmistakable evidence that something of the kind had taken place.
We are apt to look upon a lone tree standing high and dry upon some prominent elevation as particularly exposed to lightning, while we consider its neighbor on the fertile lowland as far more favorably located. But the maple or the poplar on its high hill may stand unharmed for many years after its sheltered neighbor of the same variety has been torn to splinters.
Twice in One Shower
But this does not mean that the elevated monarch on his shady throne is immune. I know of one such lone poplar that stood unharmed on Sandy Ridge, generation after generation, while people wondered why it had been able to defy the lightning so long. One day about five years ago, the fine old tree was struck and seriously injured. It survived the shock, but was badly “scarred for life”—which however, did not prove to be for a long time. The next summer it was struck again, this time twice during the same shower, if the people living within fifty yards of the tree were sure of their facts, as no doubt they were. This time it was so badly torn that its days were numbered.
Why this sudden change from seeming immunity to this surprising extreme of liability? Again, nobody knows. Nor does anybody know just why a single bolt, during one of the showers of last summer, should hit three live trees and a tall stump standing in a fifty-foot line, on the bank between the canal and the Delaware River, in front of Austin L. Davi-son’s home at Center Bridge. But it did do just that, clearly marking each tree and partially demolishing the stump.1
The most terrific clap of thunder that I ever heard appeared almost to smother us with its indescribable crash. The stone house in which we lived near Quakertown shook and quivered as with an earthquake. We thought the house must have been struck, but no one was really injured, nor could any damage be discovered. Then it must be the barn, but no blaze developed. No nearby tree had been suddenly turned into match-wood. Nothing anywhere in sight appeared to have been the target.
A Scar in the Ground
When the shower subsided, my job was to find out what had happened. I went about it, still believing that something very near us had been torn to pieces. Day after day, as opportunity offered, the search was kept up without discovering anything. At last while walking along the opposite side of the road, about 100 yards above the house, and “gawking about us as usual,” I saw that the clover on a patch a few feet from the fence was dead and brown. It did not take long to jump that fence. Sure enough, there was a ragged circle some twelve feet in diameter, on which the clover was dead and seemingly scorched, while all around it was in flourishing condition. A foot or so from the outer edge of the burned patch, was an irregular ring of holes, looking as if they had been punched upward by some giant force with a blunt steel bar. Some of them were quite well defined; others were nearly filled with crumbling earth.
What had done this? The evidence was, of course, only circumstantial; but that is sometimes the strongest kind of evidence. In this case, there seemed to be no reasonable doubt that our terrific crash was accounted for. But still there was and still there is no little mystery as to just how and why this curious condition had been left by the stroke. That there is ever an upward current of electricity rushing to meet a downward stroke at the earth’s surface does not appear to be conceded; and yet things do have puzzling appearances sometimes. Only once since that event of over fifty years ago, have I seen evidence of a similar occurrence. Not far from the year 1900, a similar killing, with like disturbances of earth, was found in a patch of growing potatoes, after a thunder shower. This time the crash had been less severe and the circle affected was less, yet the same characteristics gave evidence that the cause had been the same. All explanations are left to any scientist who feels like understanding the job, and are left without any reservations or envy whatsoever.
From bolts of Jove to puddles in the mud seems rather a ridiculous falling-off. But even a mud puddle may be a matter of interest under certain conditions. Perhaps most of you have found it so at one time or another. From early boyhood I had a foolish habit of watching the ice that formed over such places after a winter rain, followed by high wind and a sudden freeze. The clear, thin ice looked so tempting that a boy had to step on it, sometimes to his disappointment and regret. The ice was quite clear, and it looked to be all dry under the ice, the wind having “sucked up” the water after the sheet had frozen. But sometimes it was not so dry as it seemed, and then—but no matter. Mother did not scold much, particularly if the mud was scraped off—or spread about in the attempt.
From this grew another habit—that of observing the broken ice; and this led to a good deal of wondering, which has never been either satisfied or abandoned. This ice cover rarely fit closely the contour of the puddle, but left plenty of spaces for the wind to whistle through and play pranks with miniature wavelets underneath. Nothing strange about that; but hidden therein may lie the explanation of what does seem strange. Under those transparent plates were usually found heavy ridges, “beams” as I always called them, formed at a short distance from the edge, both the distance and the size depending upon the area of the little pond. A two-foot plate might have the beam or beams—for it might not be continuous, but consisting of two or three whose ends did not touch each other—from three to four inches from the edge, and the beam might be an inch deep and half as much the other way. All this one might conceive to be caused by conflicting currents of air and the interference of wavelets under the thin sheet as the water gradually lowered.
But still another strange feature always seemed to call for something more than this. The beams are generally found to be square-cornered, like beams of wood or steel supporting a floor. Why this curious formation, as if laid out by an expert engineer and fashioned by a skilled workman? Again we must let the scientist explain, and must sympathize with him in his endeavor. In fact, the more one looks into some of the “simple” things of Nature, the more he is inclined to sum it up in this quotation:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than mortals dream of.”
- This home has since become the headquarters of the Delaware River Mill Society. ↩