by Roy Lukes


The tree that impressed me most today during our brisk 10 degree F. hike, that frequently had me looking upward to admire its white beauty against the rich, crystal-clear azure stratosphere, was the paper birch. The manner in which this tree's whippy, supple branches and twigs angle so sharply skyward tends to indicate the great flexibility these trees possess.

Look at these conspicuous majestic trees from a distance to see the beautiful red cast their young upper twigs have, a fine contrast with the stark white trunks in late February. I often park near the top of a high hill overlooking a woods and try to identify as many tree species as I can by the color and shape of their winter crowns. The birches are among the easiest.

James Russell Lowell, in his poem, "An Indian Summer Reverie," described the birch as the "most shy and ladylike of trees." Coleridge referred to this immaculate tree as "the lady of the woods." Many people on my tours to observe and study nature were asked if they had any idea why Coleridge called it the lady of the woods. Finally a sharp-minded chemistry professor came up with the best answer of all, "Because the paper birch is like a lady, always appealing."

To the Ojibwe Indians of our northern lakes region, the paper birch was "wigwas." From wigwas came wigwam, because birch bark was often used for covering the top of the small rustic shelter, thereby furnishing it with a waterproof roof. Buckets, baskets, and canoes were also fashioned from this splendid material rich in resins and oils. The bark was also used as tinder for starting fires. Miss Emma Toft nicknamed this highly combustible material the "Indians' kerosene." In fact it will work quite well even when wet.

Caress the trunk of a paper birch and your hands will come away with a delightful chalky resin-like feel. Indeed its bark, rich with special resins, is extremely waterproof and long lasting. Examine a birch tree that has fallen to the ground some years ago. The wood will be soft and punky but the bark will be in a surprisingly good state of preservation due to the resins and oils. The Indians, in their reverence toward this great tree and especially its bark, pointed to the fact that the bark was the last part of the tree to decay.

Roots of the birch were used by some Native Americans as a seasoner in medicines. The sweetish, aromatic, wintergreen-like flavor disguised the less pleasant-tasting doses. Strangely, white people in later years dug and dried the roots of goldthread plants, having a very astringent, bitter flavor, and added this to many of their patent medicines. The accepted thought of the day was that the more terrible the taste of a medicine, the better it would cure your ailments.

Our hikes on top of the hard-crusted snow of the early February woods have revealed thousands of birch seeds, along with the very tiny bird-like, cross-shaped "wings" to which the seeds were attached, littering the ground beneath many of the tall stately paper birches. On several occasions we caught sight of the birds that had caused this "rain" of seeds to the forest floor, pine siskins, common redpolls, and American goldfinches. Birch seeds rank among their favorites. Ruffed grouse are also known to eat the buds, catkins and seeds of these trees.

The paper birch, Betula ("BET-you-la", the ancient Latin name of a birch) papyrifera (pay-pi-RIF-er-a, alluding to its paper-like qualities), is truly a tree of the North. No broad-leaved tree is hardier. In fact it is said to be the only tree native to Greenland and Iceland. They grow to about 66 degrees N. Latitude on this continent. Seven states have many millions growing there, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Maine, Connecticut, Vermont and New York. Go to Canada if you wish to see mile after mile of these beauties.

An outstanding example of one of its growth requirements can be seen in hilly regions of its range, especially here at around 45 degrees N. Latitude. The steep northern slopes will contain many birches while relatively few will exist on the southern slopes. One theory presented to me is that the bronze birch borer, a destructive insect to birches, destroying their tips, will not tolerate the cooler shady north slopes but will thrive on the warmer southerly slopes. Birch trees like it cool.

One of the best things that happened during my boyhood was the Sunday afternoon a small group of us boys, our 7th and 8th grade boys' Sunday school class to be exact, was taught how to swing the birches. Our wonderful teacher, Walter Kacer, knew that a rowdy bunch of junior high boys would respond better to his bible teaching if we trusted and respected him. He accomplished this, and extended his teaching as well, by taking us for long hikes in the woods and along the shores near Kewaunee every few weeks after church.

We soon mastered the important art of choosing just the right tree. Size was vital. How we would shinny up the slender trees (which was when I developed a liking for the resin on my hands). Gradually we reached the point where we began to sway slightly to and fro, and then we made that last slow reach upward for that critical and all-important firm grip on the slender trunk.

Now, slow and easy, up came our legs, bent at our hips and knees and braced up against the tree as high as we could bring our feet. Then with a combined kick-off with the feet and outward thrust of the body, holding on for dear life with the hands, we would sail in a slow graceful arch backward, down to the ground. In the case that one particular tree worked unusually well, that tree got ridden over and over until there was no ride left in it. Never, that I can recall, did a birch tree break from our rides.

As Robert Frost so eloquently said in his heartwarming poem, Birches, "One could do worse than be a swinger of birches." Yes, I too, like the Native Americans, shall always have deep respect and admiration for "the lady of the woods," always appealing in so many ways!

This column appeared in the Door County Advocate on 02/23/1996.
© Copyright 1996 Roy Lukes. All rights reserved.