I come from a family who loves to write their names on things. Hanging in my hall is a family “friendship quilt” from 1939 bearing the names of my ancestors and members of our small community in Barr, Miss., located in eastern Tate County, not far from Senatobia. When plastic label makers came out in the 1970s my father eagerly punched out his name and branded it on everything from books to furniture. It’s no wonder that my family also has a tradition of writing on trees.
Located in the woods bordering one of our lower pastures stands a 100-year old Beech tree whose smooth bark is etched with the names of our family, friends, and an occasional name that we can’t recognize. Maybe a hunter saw the tree and couldn’t resist leaving his mark.
For us—the Dandridge family of Tate County—the tradition must have started in the early 1930s judging from the old carvings which are now faded and hard to read. My grandchildren are the sixth generation to call this place home. I must have been about eight years old when my father took me by the tree on one of our horseback rides, got off his horse, wiped his pocket knife off on the leg of his jeans, and carefully carved my NLD right below the initials he and his father had carved in their younger days.
I was fascinated reading the initials that I could recognize—my uncle, my mother’s best friend, my cousin who later died at an early age, my husband and our children. I couldn’t wait until my children were old enough to sign the tree. They signed it more than once.
It seems we aren’t the only family writing on trees. I contacted my friend Bud Donahou, who happens to be an instructor in the science department where I work at Northwest Mississippi Community College, to make sure the species of this tree was correct. He knew immediately what I was talking about. “Oh, that’s probably a beech,” he said. “That’s the carving tree. There is a story about Davy Crocket carving on a beech tree.”
Apparently the tradition goes back farther than Crockett. It has even inspired poetry. English poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) wrote these verses in his poem “The Pleasures of Hope.”
“Youthful lovers in my shade
Their vows of truth and rapture made,
And on my trunk’s surviving frame
Carved many a long-forgotten name”
Those old inscriptions on my tree have already begun to widen and disappear leaving only a scar on the bark. I can’t wait for my four grandchildren to carve their little crooked initials on that old tree. It will be up to them to see that the tradition continues.
And it has. See photo of Howard helping kids carve on the tree. My mother's initials MLD—Marjorie Latham Dandridge—can be seen on the trunk.
Originally published in DeSoto Magazine.