Friday, March 25, 2011

Happy Birch Day

If they gave out awards for Best Trees in a Starring Role, I'd nominate and vote for the birch tree, for sure. It definitely deserves a Bosker.*

Why the birch? Well, since you ask...

It's got beautiful white bark slashed with black marks so that it appears to be wisely, mysteriously watching the world with kohl-rimmed ancient Egyptian eyes.

Its leaves are lime green in spring, grass green in summer, and flaming yellow in fall. When they've drifted to the ground, they form a short-lived but beautiful gold carpet that later becomes excellent mulch.

Ants scurry up and down the trunk in summer to visit scale insects higher up in the branches, making for idle amusement as one watches their frantic journeys and laughs at the Labrador who stops in surprise, then thinks "candy tree!" and licks ants off the bark.

My family had birch trees in the front and back gardens of my childhood home. The front-garden one was a multi-trunked specimen, with three trunks that formed a ground-level hardback chair. I liked to sit there in warm weather to read. The back-garden tree had multiple trunks, too, and was much taller. I remember a squirrel who used to cling as far out on a whiplike twig as he could to hang in front of my pet rabbits' hutch and scold the inoffensive bunnies.

During one bracing Long Island winter, we woke up to find the world encased in ice, glittering in the sun: An ice storm had glazed every branch and twig, every conifer needle and blade of grass. It was like awakening in the Snow Queen's palace, surrounded by a cold, fragile, sparkling, yet brutal and deadly beauty. It was a magical fairyland that downed powerlines and snapped limbs and entire trees that couldn't bear the weight of all that ice.

The birches bowed until their crowns touched the ground. Birches are well known for their suppleness--an old Blackfoot legend tells how all the trees were willing to bend and break at the command of the wind, all but the birch, which was punished for its refusal to snap by scarification that created its black slashes.

Peeling bark on the paper birch
As the ice melted, the birches shook off the shards and slowly straightened up again.

But the next time an ice storm threatened, we thought about the neighbors' birches, most of which had cracked in the first one, and quickly built rudimentary frames that would catch our trees at a height of about six feet so they wouldn't bend all the way to the ground. This probably saved them from being turned into firewood post-storm.

We planted birches shortly after we bought our current house about 15 years ago. In the front garden, a graceful Himalyan birch grows in the fill dirt that replaced a monstrous 600-gallon unused residential heating oil tank that we didn't know lurked there until after we bought our house. When it was hauled out, it looked as if we'd dug up a locomotive. In the back garden, a native paper birch towers about 50-plus feet in height.

Two weeks ago, we planted a third birch (another Himalayan) in a corner of the back garden. It's ostensibly there to block out the view of the 3-story house recently built to the northeast of our property. It also felt good to plant it as a way of honoring my father, who recently passed away.

Bark of the Himalayan birch
A birch tree makes a fitting tribute. Dad was a woodworker, and birches have long supplied wood to woodworkers; birchwood has been used to make everything from cradles to canoes. Birches are also an ancient symbol of life in Celtic mythology. They stand for renewal, springtime, purification, and new life.

The word "birch" is thought to spring from a Sanskrit word meaning "tree whose bark is used to write on" (its bark peels off in wide strips and has long been used as paper in many cultures). Because I make my living scribbling, this feels like a nice bonus touch.

The day we planted this tree, I received in the mail a lovely gift from the dear women in my craft group.

A beautiful card informed me that a tree had been planted in a Californian grove in honor of my father via an organization called The Trees Remember.

Dangling from the card was a small silver pendant reminiscent of a birch in its summer glory. (Elizabeth, Rebecca, Ruth, Julie, Rachel--thank you.)

I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
---from "Birches" by Robert Frost
*"Bosker" was a lucky discovery as I googled derivations for "bosky" to see if there was such a words as "bosker" to rhyme with "Oscar. I was very pleased to discover that there not only is such a word, but that it means "first-rate, excellent, delightful" in obsolete Australian slang.)