Sacred tree of the Northeast
Stark white standing tall
Green leaves summer, yellow leaves fall
Leaves fluttering in the wind
Leaves shimmering in the sun
Leaves layered cascading down
1965- my best-friend-ever, Lee and I were in the woods down by the railroad tracks one afternoon where the tracks cut through solid rock creating steep cliffs on either side. On top of the south cliff was a grove of White Birches- thin, straight, tall, bordering a farmer‘s field. We often hung out by the tracks because there was a lot to do there.
One day in early fall, Lee climbed one of the birch trees to see how far he could see. He kept going and going up until I heard him yell and the top of the tree was bending down with him holding on. He was headed to the ground fast. Lee let go of the tree with his legs while still holding on with his hands. His feet swung down. The tree slowed and he gently touched the ground. Lee let go of the tree and it whipped back up.
I said, “Cool. Do it again!” Neither of us had ever seen or heard of such a thing. We went through the grove trying tree after tree. It was great fun, a fabulous country sport. It was like flying. I’d never heard anyone tell of riding birches until I came across this poem by Robert Frost:
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice storms do. 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.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust-
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
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.
Frost talks about the trees losing their stiffness. He had learned the same thing we did, through experience. Lee lived closer to the railroad tracks than I did. He had gone back to ride the birches before I got back a week later. He reported that he had worn the trees out; after so many times they had lost their spring. We had to hike further out to find new birch trees.
As an adult I see the sacred beauty of birches like everyone else. Every once in a while though, I see a grove of tall thin 35-foot trees, and like Frost, think about riding the birch trees.
Painting from Cross’s Art Collection
It’s 6:56 Tuesday morning, November 10, 2015. Gray sky with hazy streaks of peach and orange opening out above the sea. The sun is two fingers above the horizon, an oval yellow streak in the sky. The ocean is blue-gray with an even, fine chop on the water. A pathway of cream colored light reaches from shore to a peach gold sky at the horizon beneath the rising sun. A lobster boat is passing through the sun glade and with the binoculars I can see ten lobster boats in my quadrant of sea.
Since I cut down the clump of white birch trees on the front lawn two weeks ago, every time I look out to the sea, I’m struck by how much more ocean it seems I can see. It’s not as though there is more ocean, it’s simply that the white birches were so powerful, so beautiful. A white tree with yellow leaves stops the eye, draws attention; it competes with the ocean and sky.
In my 25 years here I’ve cut this birch back to the ground twice. Most years I simply top the birch so that from the porch I can see over it. Without hesitation every year I cut sprouting oaks and maples back to the ground. Birches are sacred though, they exude an otherworldliness. All the trees of the world have gray-brown trunks and birches are white with scaly papery white bark. Bark papery enough that it can be peeled off and written on with a pen and ink. White birches stand in such contrast to all the other trees in the woods.
I felt badly for cutting this clump back because it was so beautiful out there on the edge of the hill. I consoled myself after I cut them down by counting the number of birch trees on my property, and was surprised to find there were 38. I have resolved now to maintain an unimpeded view and to keep the birches cut back like I do the oaks and maples.
I’m struck by how powerful this tree is in my consciousness. The birch is the tree in our family that whenever the subject of cutting comes up it generates the greatest discussion.
I read that the birch tree is New England’s second-favorite tree. The article didn’t say what the #1 tree in New England was. I presume though, it’s the Maple for the colors of fall foliage and maple syrup in the spring.
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