The birch tree

Birch alley at Yasnaya Polyana

Birch alley at Yasnaya Polyana

It seems right to commence this blog with a post about the birch tree – “beryoza” or (affectionately) “beryozka” in Russian. The birch tree is a symbol of the Russian natural environment and of Russian beauty, and has a very special place in the country’s culture.

Russian birch forest in the springtime

Russian birch forest in the springtime

The birch tree was once worshipped as a goddess. It was believed to ward off evil spirits and make wishes come true. Tributes to the birch are found in Russian art, songs, poems and folk tales. The famous poet Sergei Esenin wrote his own poetic tribute to the tree, which several generations of Russians learned by heart at primary school (you can read it at the end of this post).

Birch is extremely pliable. If you arrive in Moscow at the of the winter and take the train from the airport into the city, you’ll notice that many of the birch trees along the route are bent almost double from the weight of the snow that they had to bear. Birches generally bend but do not break. Similarly, the pliability of bark makes it a useful material to work with. The ancient Slavs used birch bark to make everything from writing paper to footwear, and birch bark crafts are one of Russia’s biggest traditions.

Birch bark

Tolstoy’s favourite bench at his country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, was made of birch logs; a replica now sits in the same location, and it’s surprisingly comfortable (yes, I tested it myself).

Birch bench

Birch bench at Yasnaya Polyana

For centuries, the birch has been famed for its healing qualities. Just strolling in a birch grove is thought to help you stay happy and healthy, and touching a birch tree is believed to restore emotional balance and reduce stress levels. If you don’t care for tree hugging, for a short period at the beginning of Spring you can try the Russian pastime of tapping your own birch juice (“beryozovy sok”): just make a small hole in the trunk of a tree and attach a small container beneath it to catch the sap. If you do it carefully, and plug the hole afterwards, you won’t do the tree any harm.

Birch tree in the spring Birch catkins

In her beautiful novel ‘The Beginning of Spring’ (pub. Collins, 1988), Penelope Fitzgerald writes a wonderfully evocative passage about birches in Russia. This is just an extract from it, but I commend the book to you so that you can read all of it yourself:

“The trees grew so close to the dacha that they threw shadows, with the first light, through every window. Only a few yards away from the veranda the forest began. The fringes were of hazel and aspen, with green grass in the clearings as soon as the snow melted, and a wealth of cloudberries, bilberries and wild raspberries. The birches were the true forest. They had created for themselves a deep ground of fallen leaves and seeds, dropped twigs, and rotting bark, decomposing into one of the earth’s richest coverings.

As the young birches grew taller the skin at the base of the trunks fragmented and shivered into dark and light patches. The branches showed white against black, black against white. The young twigs were fine and whip-like, dark brown with a purple gloss. As soon as the shining leaf-buds split open the young leaves breathed out an aromatic scent, not so thick as the poplar but wilder and more memorable, the true scent of wild and lonely places. The male catkins appeared in pairs, the pale female catkins followed. The leaves, turning from bright olive to a darker green were agitated and astir even when the wind dropped. They were never strong enough to block out the light completely. The birch forest, unlike the pine forest, always gives a chance of life to whatever grows beneath it.”

Birch trees in Russia

And here is Esenin’s poem, “The Birch Tree”, which Russian children learn at school. (Unfortunately I haven’t been able to track down the name of the translator – I hate not to credit them, so please drop me a line if you know who it is.)

БЕРЕЗА

Белая береза
Под моим окном
Принакрылась снегом,
Точно серебром.

На пушистых ветках
Снежною каймой
Распустились кисти
Белой бахромой.

И стоит береза
В сонной тишине,
И горят снежинки
В золотом огне.

А заря, лениво
Обходя кругом,
Обсыпает ветки
Новым серебром.

THE BIRCH-TREE

Just below my window
Stands a birch-tree white,
Under snow in winter
Gleaming silver bright.

On the fluffy branches
Sparkling in a row
Dangle pretty tassels
Of the purest snow.

There the birch in silence
Slumbers all day long
And the snow gleams brightly
In the golden sun.

And the dawn demurely
Going on its rounds
With a silver mantle
Decks again the boughs.

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