Ever since humans stood erect to peer over the landscape they have had relationships with trees. We have climbed them for protection or for a better view, picked their fruits when hungry and gathered their twigs and limbs for fires to heat, cook and cast light. Trees have been rendered into homes, churches, schools, hospitals and other structures of commerce. We cannot judge one tree better than another, but through the millennia, the birches have held a sacred position in North America, Europe and Asia.

I’m partial to birch because my tastes favor the compass direction of north and it is the north that paper birch thrives best. And in the absence of pigment, the bark is snow white which sets it off beautifully in a world of green and brown.

The black-capped chickadee is likely more partial to birch, particularly a dead tree snag. Dying and dead birch don’t last long.  The  highly waterproof bark traps moisture in the lifeless tree trunk and hastens the rotting process. Consequently once the chickadee works a perfectly round hole through the bark, it can easily excavate small chunks of soft inner wood in creating a nesting cavity. Sometimes you can encounter an upright birch tube, also known as a birch chimney, where the only remaining vestige of the tree is an upright cylinder of empty birch bark; it’s core is rotted away.


Earlier this week, I started a warming fire in the kitchen stove to ward off the April dawn chill.  As an experiment, I submerged a shard of birch bark in a jar of water. I lifted it out of the water and held a match the dripping bark and in less than 20 seconds it flared up and I lit the stove fire.

No matter the season, when I am camping in the company of birch, I always pocket shards of  bark scraps from the ground to kindle the evening campfire. Whether the woods are dripping wet, or the temperatures cold enough to pop the trees like a gun shot, a scrap of birch bark will always grab hold of the match flame.  Since the bark is resistant to rotting, there are usually plenty of scraps on the ground.

Birch bark should never be peeled from a living tree. Do to so runs the risk of exposing the tree’s growing layer of tissue to potential disease, fungal and insect attacks.

A few years ago I was in Sweden over the summer solstice. Traditionally this longest of days is a time of celebration and dancing around the maypole or majstång (pronounced “my-shtong”). The ancient ritual usually involves wrapping a tall birch tree trunk, trimmed of its limbs, with a wrapping of greenery and freshly picked flowers. This practice, and our December ritual of decorating a Christmas tree, are throwbacks to ancient pagan practices that honored God in the trees.

While traveling on a bus through the birch-rich landscape of northern Sweden, I was especially transfixed by an old man who stepped slowly up into the bus at a stop in a small village. He wore a ragged navy blue sweater with fabric elbow patches, a pair of homely gray polyester pants and worn tennis shoes. His thick shock of white hair and equally white full beard framed his ruddy face and ice-blue eyes. But it was his small backpack that he slid off his shoulders when he sat down in front of me that drew my attention.

The pack was made entirely of woven strips of birch bark. The shoulder straps were worn leather, colored dark brown from years of handling. During the ride, he reached down and pulled two small, frayed journals from the pack. He carefully opened one to a page marked with a slender strip of birch bark. The old man would smile and speak quietly to no one, pointing to excerpts from the journal. He was a peculiar man, a man whose very hair was as brilliantly white as the birch. I wished I could know what made him smile. Since that day I have often used strips of thin birch bark for bookmarks.

On northern canoe trips I have scribbled notes on scraps of birch bark for fellow voyageurs. Messages like: “paddled to the river to fish” or simply, “be back in a couple of hours.” One year, when I spent the fishing opener and Mother’s Day in canoe country, I fashioned a Mother’s Day card out of a curled sheet of birch bark and a sprig of white cedar.

The birch was so important to the Ojibway that they were often referred to as the “Birch Indians.” Cups, bowls, mats, shelters, and canoes were all products of birch bark.

Yukon Brewing, in Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory,  makes a seasonal birch beer that is only sold in glass jugs called growlers and once it is on tap it rarely lasts a month. The sap of birch is collected from birch up near Dawson, where the Klondike gold rush started.

The very word “birch” is derived from an old English word, beorht, which translates to “bright.” It’s white skin appears white only because there is no pigment in the bark. The reflected light appears colorless or white.

In the coming weeks we will witness the flush of tree greenery. And we will be guaranteed a new “wardrobe” for the birch. Amazing, simply amazing and all because of the earth’s tilting that gives rise to a new hand of seasons.







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