Thursday, December 14, 2017

Historic graffiti carved in beech bark

In the five years I've been frequenting Shepherd Parkway, I've always admired its thousands of beech trees.

All over the United States, the smooth, light grey bark of beech trees have often been an irresistible target for those wishing to immortalize their walk in the woods by carving their names for future generations of hikers see. As the tree grows, the carving expands and stretches out like the words on a balloon.

Growing up in Boy Scouts and going to Quaker church camp, I was always taught to "leave no trace" in nature; carving into the bark of a tree was a total no-no, a desecration on par with leaving trash or cutting trees down.   

But humans have always interacted with and altered nature, and the human history of a place like Shepherd Parkway is at least as important as the forest that is there now. The remains of the Fort Carroll and Fort Grebel earthworks are not considered a scar on the landscape; they are part of Washington's rich Civil War legacy.

On a recent walk through the wilds of Shepherd Parkway to scout out areas that still need to be cleaned of trash, I stopped to closely examine some the carvings, and realized for the first time their historical value.

To begin with, some of the carving are in places where it is surprising to find any sign of human presence. After walking for several minutes away from the nearest street, up and down steep ravines and through brambles, the city seems far away. There is no trail leading here, and I've been seen another soul out there.

But in decades past, I've heard, Congress Heights kids treated the park as their own Hundred Acre Wood.
They are the likely creators of these carvings, which look old.

Most are just names or initials, and some are not legible. Above is the oldest dated carving I've found so far, in a beautiful area between Malcolm X Avenue and Brothers Place.  It reads "A.R. Hudson 1920." That's 97 years ago, before any of us were born, and older than most houses in Congress Heights. The tree has grown a lot in that time, so the size of the words has probably more than doubled.

Nearby are several carvings from the 1950s, including "Hardy 1953" and "Pack 61 1953. Cub Scout pack, that it.

Hearts are a common motif, but this one (see left) is unusual. Instead of the lovers' names inside the heart, it appear to says "As it was right before God I'm C." What's your interpretation?

In a sad but unsurprising reminder the long history of violent white supremacy in our city, I also encountered a carving of a swastika and the word "Hitler." It looks to be least 40 year old, and could have been carved anytime since 1920, when the Nazis adopted the swastika (originally a Hindu sign of good luck ) as their symbol.

Most fascist vandalism is (thank God) removed immediately, but this one deep in the woods has remained, much like the hatred that it represents. 

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