Sunday, 1 October 2017

Birch Trees and Their Beauty

More than ten thousand years ago, the last glaciers began receding after millennia of ice.  Glacial erosion triggered landslips, while meltwater currents gave rise to new geographical dimensions, so that the hills and valleys we see today were born, and newly emerging flora began blanketing the land

Beyond the area now known as Todmorden, the Calder Valley was not occupied by a glacier during this last glacial period, so the valley's wide ridges remained narrow-bottomed but extremely steep. Some of the earliest trees to colonize Britain survived such environments because deep-running root systems, sufficiently sturdy to cling to mountainsides and hills.  These "pioneer trees" included alders, pines, and birch.  

The Betula genus, its name a complex compound of various old English and Germanic references to its silvery-white bark, is native to Northern climates, and the silver birch – Betula Pendula – is among the most frequent. Growing in acid soils, the trees - like many of the genus - are extensive growers, and support a wide range of species and activities.
 The birch, explains Seventeenth Century English botanist John Evelyn, will thrive both in the dry, and the wet, sand, and stony, marshes, and bogs; the water-galls, and uliginous parts of forests that hardly bear any grass, do many times spontaneously produce it in abundance, whether the place be high, or low, and nothing comes amiss to it.
 It is indeed an enterprising species. In the Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey explains - Its seeds are produced in huge numbers and are blown about like dust in the wind.  On areas of open woodland or heath, the frizzy seedlings can carpet the ground in a matter of months. No wonder, then, that the Calder Valley, with its acidic soils and areas of open, steep or craggy country, is host to thriving woods of silver birch.

Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel. 

Robert Frost, Birches.

Massing like huge stalagmites, the trunks of silver birch are knobbly and slightly twisting, as if breeze-blown, and yet their bone-hued bark is the stuff of hardy survival. They are, however, relatively short-lived as individuals - silver birch trees, which grow to around thirty feet high (of average size in British woodlands), can live for around eighty years. 
Of the tree's distinctive colours, The Forestry Commission tell us: The bark is a whitish colour and sheds layers like tissue paper.  The smooth twigs have little dark warts. 
This darker colouring is not restricted to the "warts" of Betula pendula's twigs.  The trunk its self will, as the years go by, become blotched by dark brown crevaces and patches.  But the species is generally tolerant to pollution and relatively free of pests, especially in its native lands and climate. A prolific reproducer, it releases wind blown seeds from catkins - pendulous, cylindrical flowers - which hang down like greeny-yellow caterpillars, crimsoning in late summer.  

 This prolific growth habit does not always endear the Betula pendula to commercial growers.  Outdoing many more profitable competitors such as spruces, the silver birch - whose light wood is not much in demand in Britain and used primarily for plywood and other relatively inexpensive products - is seen by forester as a pest, and has been subject to clearances.  However, if we go back through the centuries, we find that birch wood has, in fact, been considerably more popular and of manifold use.

The Highlanders of Scotland make everything of it, reported Scottish botanist John Loudon in 1842, they build their houses, make their beds and chairs, tables, dishes and spoons, construct their mills; make their carts, ploughs, harrows, gates and fences, and even manufacture ropes of it. The branches are employed as fuel in the distillation of whisky..."
And the conversion of birch wood into alcohol was not - is not - confined to drinkers north of the border.  Bark and sap can be used for making wines and whiskies, teas and medicines, soft drinks and syrups, and even for concocting ice-cream.  Mixed with oils, birch sap can be used in the production of sauces and gauze, and creates a taste that has been compared to caramel.  

North Americans and Native Canadians used the wood to build wigwams and canoes, Scandinavians wrapped the bark around their legs in wet weather, while in Russia birch was used in making arrows. Bound birch twigs have even been used in corporal punishment - to be given "the birch". More peacefully, birch is used for making furniture, besom brooms and ornaments, but it is fair to say that its hey-day as a staple of cottage-industries is long gone.  While a hundred years ago it may have provided the material for bobbins, spools and even roof thatch, Betula pendula is simply not as suited to modern manufacture as trees with thicker, straighter trunks, and in the case of timber used in paper production, softwood. Even so, products such as veneers are still reliant on birch wood use, and The Forestry Commission point out that B. pendula are still used for tool and brush handles and toys. The waterproof bark can be used for roofing ... the twigs can be bound together to make brushes. 

Depicted in Celtic folklore as a symbol of renewal and purification, birch wood has had other, less conventional roles than being used in making foods or practical objects.  Stripped of bark the wood was historically used for the Yule log, and various pagan dances and rites have been performed around the trees, while the pagan-flavoured website The Goddess Tree relates: The traditional broom of witches was made of birch twigs, and cradles were once made from birch wood for the sole purpose to protect the helpless children.  
 Another use of birches steeped in folklore has been that lamented by Welsh poet Gruffydd ap Dafydd, who in the mid Fourteenth Century asked, Was it nor barbarous, my birch, to make you wither yonder, a bare pole...? and informs the reader how the birch in question was cut down, and set up in Llandidloes for a maypole.  This, feels the poet, is an unbecoming fate for the majestic sceptre of the wood.  The tree's example seems to demonstrate a fall from grace, as exiled from your wooded slope, the formerly elegant and respectable birch now seems made for huckstering, as you stand there like a market woman. As a result of this transformation, the disapproving Dafydd seems to aim the blame at least partly on the tree its self - now turned traitress to your grove - as if suggesting an allegory of faithlessness or insincerity, and threatens that
in the cheerful babble at the fair 
all will point their fingers at your suffering, 
in your one grey shirt and your old fur,
 amid the pretty merchandise.
The elegy reverts to its formerly despairing tone when its author contemplates the future of of the forest from whence the exiled birch was taken: 
No more will the bracken hide your urgent seedlings, 
where your sister stays; 
no more will there be mysteries and secrets shared,
 and shade, under your dear eves; 
you will not conceal the April primroses, 
with their gaze directed upwards; 
you will not think to enquire, fair poet tree, 
after the birds of the glen.

But other poets have celebrated birches - none more famously than Robert Frost - and drawn attention to its unique, quiet beauty.  Frost's poem is well known and easy to find, but a more recent tribute to the tree is that of New Yorker Cynthia Zarin, which blends close-focus on the beauty of the birch, with its ravine of leaves and evocations of love,  and the calligraphy of scars which with its bone-like shape and colour offer overtones of mortality and loss: 


Bone-stir, stirrup of veins  - white colt
a tree, sapling bone again, worn to a splinter,
a steeple, the birch aground 

in its ravine of leaves.  Abide with me, arrive
at its skinned branches, its arms pulled
from the sapling, your wrist taut, 

each ganglion in the tree's rent
trunk, a child's hackwork, love plus love
my palms in your fist, that 

trio a strident splitting the birch, its bark
papyrus, its scars calligraphy,
a ghost story written on

winding sheets, the trunk bowing, dead is
my father, the birch reading the news
of the day aloud as if we hadn't

heard it, the root moss lit gas,
like veins on your ink-stained hand-
the birch all elbows, taking us in.

As we have seen, the silver birch has a long history - from its days of conquering the thawing plains of prehistoric Northern Europe, colonizing swathes of interglacial Britain and establishing its self as a dominant feature on the landscape, through its significance to worship, idolatry and traditional festivity, to its rise and fall as a major player in the world of manufacturing.  Yet, notwithstanding its reduced appeal to foresters, furniture designers and the makers of maypoles - another echo of a former time - the silver birch continues to play a vital role in a different area of life: ecology. Birch woods, which may comprise different species of the tree, have light, airy canopies, providing perfect conditions for grasses, mosses and many wildflowers such as anemones, bluebells, wood sorrel and violets.  As The Woodland Trust make clear: Silver birch provides food and habitat for more than 300 insect species - the leaves attract aphids, providing food for ladybirds and other species further up the food chain, and are also a food plant for the caterpillars of many moths, including the angle-shades, buff tip, pebble hook-tip, and Kentish glory. 

The beneficiaries of birch include the immobile also - as the soils beneath their shade, and even the trunks themselves, often host varieties of fungi: birch trees are particularly associated with birch brittlegill, birch knight, the birch polypore, birch milk cap, wooly milk cap,and fly agaric.

The Trust also inform us of another advantage - the birch tree's part in boosting bird life.  Woodpeckers and other hole-nesting birds often nest in the trunk, while the seeds are eaten by siskins, greenfinches and redpolls, while according to The Forestry Commission, these bids may well be joined by chaffinches, tree pipits, willow warblers, robins, possibly the woodcock, woodpeckers, and even nightingales.  The Commission further advises that birches provide cover for many other animals, including sheep sheltering from rain.

The trees are reflections of a pioneering past, when their kind were among the earliest to brave the melting frosts, and became important links in the chain of natural life As Richard Mabey writes, there is still a vestige of magic about birches. As we veer into autumn, their tooth-white frames cast stark shades against the bronzy blush of autumn leaves, ad the masts of black branches racked flowerlessly against darkening skies. Birches appear almost bony, marred in brown streaks like decaying totem poles.    And yet, against wind and rain, snow and ice, even the repeated assaults of man, they stand firm - as indeed they have done for ten thousand years.




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