pierre laszlo

Betula (Betulaceae)

A birch forest makes an impression, of a pristine, primeval scene. The slender white trunks, vertical of course, let the eye roam deeply through them. The imagination hastens to fill the voids from what it retains of mythology, wild beasts and deities. Such a sight is very ordinary in the Sub-Arctic, in Siberia in particular. In any case, extensive birch forests make quite a sight.

Of course, birches are not restricted to such Northern territories, they are also found throughout temperate zones. Evolution of the Betula genus is still being investigated, polyploidization has occurred many times independently.

The description may start with the bark, a lovely white material that can be sustainably culled without permanent damage to the trees. It can be woven, folded, and lashed into a great variety of shapes. Birch bark contains higher levels of lignin, and waxes than most types of wood. It consists of many thin sheets or layers, joined together. It is a superior construction material, as its grain wrapped around the tree rather than travelling the length of it, allowing for more expert shaping. When the layers expand and contract at different rates, they curl.

There are multitudinous uses for birch bark, of which I’ll mention only two, canoe-building and writing support. The birchbark canoe was the main transport vehicle of Native Americans, in Canada especially.  Light and maneuverable, birchbark canoes were perfectly adapted for summer travel through networks of shallow streams, ponds, lakes and swift rivers of the Canadian Shield. At a typical length of 4.3 m (14 ft) and weight of 23 kg (50 lb), they were light enough to be portaged. Canoes were a necessity for nomadic northern Algonquian tribes like the Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi), Ojibwa, Maliseet and Algonquin. Having witnessed their flexibility, Europeans voyageurs used them to explore and trade in the interior of the country, and to connect fur trade supply lines with central posts, such as Montréal.

The frames were usually of cedar, soaked in water and bent to the shape of the canoe. The joints were sewn with spruce or white pine roots, pulled up, split and boiled by Native American women. The seams were waterproofed with hot spruce or pine resin gathered and applied with a stick. During travel, paddlers often re-applied resin, almost daily, to keep the canoe watertight.

Birch bark could so easily be turned into a white page, that would invite writing! It has happened a few times in human history. Uncharacteristically, the Chinese have yet to turn up specimens antedating all the other examples. The most ancient, meanwhile, are numerous Gandhāran Buddhist texts from approximately the first century CE, believed to have originated in Afghanistan, likely by the Dharmaguptaka sect. Another find, relatively recent (1951), are Russian texts discovered in Veliky Novgorod, dated approximately from the 9th to the 15th centuries CE. They consist foremost of letters written by various people in the Old Novgorod dialect.

I’ve dealt here with the bark only. This plant is indeed a vast store of folkways, legends and benefits to mankind — in the reputedly unhospitable North.