I’m a Dendrophile with a Life-long Love Affair with Birch Trees and 7 Ecological Lessons
“We must protect the forests for our children, grandchildren and children yet to be born. We must protect the forests for those who can’t speak for themselves such as the birds, animals, fish and trees.” Qwatsinas, Nuxalk Nation
A dendrophile is defined as a person who loves trees and forest.
You can even call me a passionate dendrophile because I want to talk about the characteristics of birch trees as if describing people.
My love affair with birch trees started as a child on the farm. There was a copse of birch trees, along with a few poplars, that lined the side ditch along the meadow for spring flow-off to the creek. I was fascinated by trees whose bark could be pulled off in strips like paper. We were told never to pluck off the dangling catkins because they were seedpods filled with pollen to pollinate smaller cones with fluttery seeds. Wet strips, still flammable, could be wrapped at the end of long branches and set to burn slowly as night lights. Fall time winds send swirls of golden leaves to catch mid-air to see who was agile enough to catch the most.
The history and science came much later. Birch bark is uniquely strong, flexible and water-resistant that can be easily cut, bent, and sewn. Since prehistoric times it has been used as a valuable building, crafting, and even writing material in various cultures around the world.
North American native cultures used birch bark for watertight canoes stretched over a wooden frame that was lightweight enough for one person to carry by himself but could support an impressive amount of weight. Their shelters were birch bark houses called wigwams built from tall poles shaped like a dome or cone and covered with sheets of birch bark held in place by smaller strips.
Birch bark, in every way, was used to make scrolls and some of the oldest maps, fishing and hunting gear, clothing, shoes, burial wraps as well as a great variety of baskets or containers. Moose horn trumpets, drums, rattles and even children’s sleds and toys were handcrafted from birch.
Of course, natives were careful not to remove the bark from a live birch which would threaten the health of that tree through fungal invasion. If the dark inner bark or cambium was damaged through which water and nutrients flowed, the tree would die. Fortunately, because of the bark’s remarkable preservative properties, it could be cut and removed from dead or fallen trees for multiple uses.
Ethnobotany, the study of plants and their practical uses through the traditional knowledge of a local culture and people, was alive and well, working hand in hand for mutual benefits, showing the symbiosis possible with Nature’s bounty and human’s needs.
Characteristically, birch bark seems covered with several scars or rough stripes along its trunk and branches. One native legend explained they were dark burn marks caused by lightning strikes when the birch tree was trying to protect a family of rabbits inside it.
Scientifically, these stripes are the pores through which the tree trunk “breathes.” They are called lenticels for respiration or exchanging oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor as part of photosynthesis and other cellular functions. Nature’s design and function form the basis of a simple tree ecosystem within the full four fundamental processes that operate in any ecosystem: water cycle, mineral cycle, energy flow, and succession.
Now, 50 years later, I can still look out at the birch trees standing on the edges of the meadow, larger with more gnarled branches, relating to seasonal expectations. I will not be using their amazing birch bark when they fall but, introspectively, I still wonder what kind of legacy they could leave? What if, the natural life force of a tree is relative to human conditions of responsibility to support our community and protect our environment.
In fact, a tree is a perfect member of an ecosystem and community that shows that a body is an assembly of species and relationships, never self-contained.
In fact, what if a tree could communicate to show its feelings and interactions from the roots to the leaves to the catkins? How many life lessons about our own ecosystem could it share? At least 7 is possible:
· how to respect the diversity of lifeforms from the smallest to the largest to each their unique purpose.
· how to stand up without ego because self-ego is only one strand that can negate the other affinities
· how changes in the environment need transition times with tolerance
· how weather is not just about daily temperatures but the very life channel to a healthy ecosystem
· how consuming food webs are the right to life itself for every life form — contaminated or not
· how balance, recycling and connections are the global laws in Nature to be applied to every living plant, animal and human.
· how ecological succession continues its generosity and caring into the fabric of any community
Interestingly, 50 years ago, shortly after I left the farm, as a university student, I wrote about a birch tree called Birchum Birch and left the manuscript to vegetate in a dusty drawer. With all the problems on the Earth today, I thought it might be timely to bring it into the modern world. At first, it was a simple story about a tree and its caricature encounters. But, now the story has evolved far deeper with fearsome feelings and holistic hopes about a changing earth and society, about industry, commerce and virtual reality where nature’s co-operation must not be relegated to a minor secondary role but amplified for peaceful co-existence.
So, why not stop and admire a beautiful birch tree with golden dappled leaves singing in the breeze while understanding, under that scarred bark, he personifies a personality from his roots’ tips to his leaves’ tips and the special love relationship he shares with his world.
You act kindly to friends, right?
What are your special bonds to trees or plants or Nature’s bounty?
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“But floating over a megalopolis, staring through high rise windows into people’s boardrooms, how could Soonday (the tree Dryad)make her presence known that nature was alive but suffering because of people’ monopolies? How could she show her respect for a little birch tree that true self mattered as the essence of Nature’s power to share family, community and environment? Why couldn’t they understand that any being, or anybody is more than just about a brain and genes, but a whole ecosystem of connections surrounding oneself?” Excerpt: Ecological Succession of Birchum Birch