(A Variation of a Haibun)
I’m hiking with a friend on a trail next to a reservoir. On one side of us blue water, on the other, several white birch, striking amidst the dense foliage. I stop to take photos, the white streaks like long strokes of paint in a landscape of darker hues. I walk up to one, the scabbed bark so much more apparent on a closer view. My awe similar to when I saw Giacometti statues in a museum. It doesn’t seem possible that these trees with their fragile limbs can stretch to the sky.
I tell her my Russian father loved birch trees. ”Oh, the Russians,” she explains,“ the birch is their national symbol.” My Russian friend has a house full of framed photographs of these trees in different seasons, light and shadow, on his bookcases and mantel. I later learn that the Russians created birch furniture, baskets, ornaments, and a sweet syrup from the sap. Was this fascination, in the bones, part of my father’s legacy as the son of immigrant Russian Jews?
I look up the significance of birch trees in Russian mythology. For the ancient Slavs hugging a birch brought good luck. The tree also is associated with young girls, the dangling branches and leaves, resembling braids. I google images of birch trees and see visions of them in central Russia: hundreds of white, almost skeletal figures standing in groves. One Sunday afternoon I watch Dr. Zhivago, relishing the visions of them against endless fields of snow.
As far back as I can remember, when my father took me as a child on walks near the bungalow colony in the country where we spent our summers, he searched for these trees as if we were hunting for hidden treasure. Once we spotted one, he’d go up to the trunk, rub his fingers across the bark, then urge me to. Our fingertips soon were stained with white dust. A trace of the tree’s magical powers. Next, he would carefully pull a sheaf of bark from the trunk and take it back to our cottage. There with needles, we’d sketch designs in the parchment bark. I remember drawing a small house with a chimney with plumes of smoke, a curved path, and dots for daisies and roses. I wish we had preserved these drawings. But only the traces of memory remain.
When my father was very old, in his nineties, after my mother’s death, he’d visit me in New Paltz, in the Hudson Valley; we’d drive on back roads searching for them. When we’d find a few, his eyes would light up, he’d nod, and sometimes we’d have to pull over so he could spend a few minutes in silence, staring at them. Almost as if that was a form of meditation. On trips to the city from my house, he’d count the birch on the side of the highway (in a curious way similar to a child’s game he’d play with me: “How many black cars can we find between exits?”) He loved the surprise of the slender silver boles standing out in a forest, edging the highway.
His admiration in some ways puzzles me. I ask my sister if she has any sense of the reason for this connection. She replies, “I didn’t know he loved birch. But it’s such a feminine, graceful tree.” I think of ballet dancers, their arms curved upward. It’s a clue.
My father was a perfect dad for young girls; I don’t know how he would have dealt with the rougher energy of young boys. He read us poetry and fairy tales, played chess with us, drew, and created bedtime stories. He also was a poet, a lover of Shakespeare, sonnets, and English literature—a quiet, tender man in many ways who kept his thoughts to himself. He expressed his emotions through writing poetry and his love of nature. When I was little, when my father and I walked through a meadow near our summer bungalow, we often picked Queen Anne’s Lace, Black-eyed Susans, and cattails for bouquets. We watched monarchs and swallowtails alight on purple thistle. These were the colors of his inner life, delicately painted on a canvas of potent and fragile need.
My father lived to 104. In his last few years before he had dementia, we sometimes hiked on a path near a creek, admiring the birch trees, their limbs bending precariously close to the water. Silent, we smiled at each other, trekked through mud and rotted leaves to get to them; then we pressed our fingers to the bark.
I look up more information about birch trees. I find out that they are a pioneer species, the first to regrow after a conflagration, the first to bud in spring. They suggest new beginnings and fortitude. My father lived through two World Wars, the Depression, the McCarthy era, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and so much more. He lived beyond his own goal of reaching 100. While he didn’t always face life with joy or with a positive outlook, he did survive. Were the trees for him a sign of endurance in the face of disaster?
Recently, I spend a week in the Adirondacks in a cabin by the woods. One morning as I sip my coffee on the front porch, I see seven birch trees surrounding a clearing; I walk over and take my place within this sheltered space. I admire the stretches of white bark and see the deep fissures in the trunks. The trees, intact, had witnessed and withstood harsh Adirondack winters. Noting no one was out of their cabins or watching me, I go up to one tree, brush my fingers against the bark, then surreptitiously hug the trunk. My own kind of sacrament.
I look up the derivation of the word birch. It’s a proto-Indo-European word meaning “to shine, bright and white.”
A point of stillness for my old bones
A refuge from wearying winds
Caws of ravens shrieks in a meadow
A time in a clearing of white space
Imagined lapping tides
No bending limbs
Never the same words spoken
Never the same eulogies
Never the same bare breath
The silver boles
skeletal watchers in a wood
forested by demons
Be still they say be still
The fissures in the bark
like deep cuts to the flesh
to the heart
But still there are moments
White dust against my fingertips
blessings on my lips
A time apart a time of brightness
of light for my old bones