Renaissance Oasis Paper Birch
Birch trees belong to the Betulaceae family, found wherever the climate is temperate. There are about 60 different species that can be white, yellow, silver and black, recognizable by their bark which peels off in strips. Having shallow roots, they thrive in moist soil with full sunlight. The typical lifespan of birch trees is 40-50 years, but under favorable conditions, they can live as long as 200 years. Some trees grow to 40 feet tall; the “paper” and “yellow” birches can grow to 80 feet tall. Birches were among the first trees to appear after the glaciers receded. Male and female flowers bloom on the same tree, the male catkins bloom in clusters during the late summer or fall, and the female flowers bloom in the early spring. The trees produce a fruit that disburses about one million seeds each year.
The name is thought to have derived from the Sanskrit word bhurga meaning a ‘tree whose bark is used to write upon’. One source said that when the poet S.T. Coleridge called birch the ‘Lady of the Woods’, “he was possibly drawing on an existing folk term for the tree.” Birch figures in many anglicized place names, such as Birkenhead, Birkhall and Berkhamstead, and appear most commonly in northern England and Scotland. In 1842 J.C. Loudon in his Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs wrote that “The Highlanders of Scotland make everything of it.”
Being tough, heavy and straight grained, birch wood is used to make handles and toys and it’s good for turning. The essential oil derived from the bark has a balsamic, some say wintergreen aroma. It’s not used in aromatherapy, but is used extensively in chewing gum, root beer and toothpaste in small amounts. Twigs and leaflets of the white birch were tied together and used in saunas for skin toning in Scandinavia.
Because it contains oils, it burns well without popping. Split into sheets, the wood will ignite with even the smallest of sparks. Birchbark manuscripts have been traced to 1st century Buddhists in Afghanistan. The oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain are Roman period Vindolanda tablets, written on birch bark. The bark is used for tanning leather, and the sap can be tapped as it rises in spring and fermented to make birch wine, a process still practiced in the Highlands of Scotland today. The Druids made it into a cordial to celebrate the spring equinox. It’s a traditional drink in Northern Europe, Russia, and Northern China. And in these countries, it’s used to make birch syrup, which is poured over pancakes and waffles.
Because the wood is water-repellent, lightweight, flexible and easy to work, the Native Americans used it to construct strong, waterproof and lightweight canoes and bowls. When used for the center pole in wigwams, teepees and yurts, the birch symbolized a new beginning. Being a highly adaptive tree able to sustain harsh conditions with casual indifference, the wood was considered by Celtic cultures to be a symbol of adaptability, growth, renewal, stability and initiation. The Siberians considered it sacred, viewing it as an invisible ladder that spanned the distance between Earth and the celestial afterlife. The Chinese honor the birch tree for its qualities of protection, communication and rejuvenation. It’s the national tree of Russia, Finland and Sweden, and it’s the state tree of New Hampshire. According to Scottish Highland folklore, a barren cow herded with a birch stick would become fertile, or a pregnant cow would bear a healthy calf. Baltic birch is one of the most sought-after woods in the manufacture of speaker cabinets. It contains betulin and betulinic acid used in the pharmaceutical industry and is an old folk remedy for stomach ache. Extracts of birch are used to make leather oil, and the cosmetic industry uses it in the production of soaps and shampoos.
Because birch trees are quick growing, relatively immune to disease and hardy survivors, they’ve come to symbolize both adaptability and the ability to create new beginnings, even after catastrophic events. Given the current, second round of spikes in Covid-19 infections, I think it’s important that we take a lesson from the birches. When circumstances change, especially those that threatens the health, well-being and survival of species—human and otherwise—they present the choice to adapt. Or not. The long and consistent record of evolution is clear: species that adapt live to reproduce. Those who don’t, do not.
Evolution works by a process of lifting, through adaptation to selective challenges, and then gifting the resulting innovations to the next generation. Individuals’ efforts (and sacrifices) enable the community to progress. This lifting and gifting narrative of our evolution and the current situation is a more constructive beacon to guide us through treacherous waters into a bright, increasingly collective future.
Typically, individuals tend to resist change unless it becomes absolutely necessary. Even then, certain members of a species will prefer to die rather than change. It’s why paleontologists are digging up the remains of dozens of two-legged homo sapiens, including the Neanderthal, who for whatever reason didn’t or couldn’t adapt to their changing physical and social environment. In the much narrower timeframe of the early 21st Century, homo (creatures who know that they know) are again confronting changes in these areas, with one big difference—we created the crises that are calling for change.
A two-year-old article in The Guardian warned that a sixth mass extinction event was already underway. Since my postings are intended as appreciations, I won’t present the facts that support this perspective, but if you’re interested in staying current with the science on the changing climate worldwide, I highly recommend NASA’s Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. It’s a beautifully illustrated, interactive site with a wealth of information, maps, charts including projections of future rises in sea level all over the world.
To survive, living things must continually learn from and adapt to their environments.
The positive side to the Covid-19 pandemic has been cleaner air, lower carbon emissions, a respite for wildlife and increased awareness and appreciation for many of the privileges we enjoyed before it struck—shaking hands, hugging people, eating in restaurants, attending plays, movies and concerts in halls and massive crowded events outdoors, being together in workplaces, being with loved ones when they’re gravely ill or dying, not having to wear a mask, traveling by car, train or airplane without concern for cleanliness and so on.
Currently, we are shifting and adjusting, mutating and suffering extinctions: the human ecology is in motion, groping for adaptation.
The big question now is whether we can capitalize on this moment. Systemic crises are only resolved at the individual level. The quality of life in the future rests on the shoulders of each one of us. It took only one person to contract and then spread the virus worldwide. To eradicate it takes a species-wide adaptation, basically a rewind where every person in the world does what they can to assume responsibility for neither contracting nor spreading the virus. Taking the message of the birches, we can embrace this period as an opportunity to begin making the changes in lifestyle and consumption that will stave off the sixth extinction. Business leadership teacher M. Scott Peck observed that “What distinguishes most humans from other creatures is our extraordinary adaptability and variability, our flexibility to do the different and often seemingly unnatural thing.”
Bright and beautiful trees, the birch is a pioneer, courageously taking root and starting anew to revive the landscape where no other would before… The birch asks us to take root in new soils and light our lives with the majesty of our very presence. The birch sings to us: ‘Shine, take hold, express your creative expanse, light the way so that others may follow.’
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