Healthy Birch

Weakened, the wind

does no discriminate.

Birches fall,

One by One.

This poem came fully formed as a dream about a week ago. Oddly, the poem mirrors exactly what has been happening to the birches that were left after a winter holocaust of frozen ice that targeted this cherished land. Damaged after being left exposed by trees that fell during the storm or were cut down in early spring, those that remain are bent and broken. The wind has raged for three abnormally dry arid spring months; some birches will not make it through the summer, and a couple threaten to hit the garage every time the Northwest wind roars.

Worse, I have no one to cut the struggling birches down.

 What I didn’t realize this winter was that in one storm I not only lost more than a hundred trees but I also lost my sanctuary, my sense of being protected by this land and its trees, and my peace. I couldn’t comprehend how permanent this triple – loss would become, or how deeply it would gnaw through every bone, every sinew, every cell of my body creating a level of anxiety that has become intolerable.

 Today on the last day of May, light drizzle fell throughout the night.  A brief shower this morning created rivlets as the water tumbled down the hill on its way to the brook. Sadly, I witnessed that even after drizzle the ground is just too dry to absorb moisture. Yet, fragile wildflowers blossomed and around my house the fruit trees, (with the exception of the wild apple tree outside my window) bloomed profusely. The fragrant scent of late crabapples and lilacs reminds me that the season is peaking, soon to be lost to summer. Because of unseasonable heat the trees budded early. Their roots were forced to pull water from deep below the surface of the earth in order to leaf out and produce leaves, new needles and blossoms. Yesterday I witnessed the first signs of acute maple stress with withered new leaves falling to the ground. I don’t know anyone beside myself who has even noticed. But the warning is real: we must have more rain on a regular basis. Drought is reality and I struggle to accept what is, because climate change is upon us. For me a spring without rain is a spring without renewal. 

That the birches continue to fall has become a metaphor for my life as well as concrete reality. When I see birches bent or broken, crisscrossed across the forest floor I shudder involuntarily.

How does a person learn to cope with the loss of a beloved sanctuary, all sense of being protected by the land and trees, and learn to live with crippling anxiety and fear of more losses to come? I don’t know.

My only recourse at this point is to place myself into the big picture, and when I do I begin to think about the role of falling birches as part of an integral forest system. Scientist Suzanne Simard discusses birches as a first succession tree that is helpful to fir trees in particular. Most importantly her research indicates that living birch protect fir trees from the root pathogen Armillaria, a disease that kills trees from the roots up within a few years. When the birches fall they rot quickly (if not stacked in huge piles by humans) providing rich humus for the forest floor. Most birches begin to die within 50 years or less adding nitrogen and potent antibiotics to the soil to create immunity from diseases. In death birch roots are left in the soil along with helpful fungi and bacteria. After a natural fire, insect outbreak, or pathogenic infection their stumps regenerate growing new birches. 

I have an area just below the house by the brook that has a few standing dead trees, one of which was felled last spring. Because of last year’s drought I planted little cedars in this area because it was moist and there were other cedars around to act as ‘mothers’. Last fall I noticed that mushrooms were sprouting up around the stump. When I took a spore sprint I discovered that these mushrooms were the visible fungi that indicated the presence of Armillaria. Oh no I thought. Then I read that according to Simard’s research cedar may have some resistance to this natural root pathogen. Well, unintentionally I had created an experiment, like it or not. There was nothing to do but wait and see. 

This spring I watched with a kind of awe as masses of woodland wildflowers popped up around the stump including new trillium. Every cedar that I planted survived and is now thriving, even in the drought. The trailing arbutus that just finished blooming cascaded down trillium rock like a bridal veil. The hemlock, spruce and pine seedlings have bright green brushes at the end of their boughs. My point here is that although it has only been less than a year every plant in this area is thriving. More filtered sun might be a factor as well as the seedlings and wildflowers having adequate protection from the wind, but the area itself is drier than I have ever seen it before. After reading about the role of birches in forest ecology I began to count the ones around this spot. I have quite a few standing trees nearby. And I confess I am even more intrigued than ever about what is happening in this small area. Could it be that these birches are protecting the other trees from the root pathogen Armillaria to some extent?

Now when I read my little dream poem I am drawn into Nature as a whole, understanding that although the birches may continue to fall in my own life, and on my own land, that overall Nature is redressing imbalances as s/he continues to adapt to a Changing Climate. I do know that I no longer have to turn away from the birches because of my fear. Perhaps only with this perspective can I find acceptance of what is, and one day begin to feel a sense of peace that has been withheld for so long.

5 thoughts on “Birches

    1. Oh Tom, I feel for you – especially after what I have been through this winter with birch hell. The worst part of it is that with so many down the others have become more vulnerable and are bending precariously. I have one clump of gray birch in the yard that are going to have to come down because one huge limb is going to hit the garage – I just dread more tree cutting.
      On another note – i still can’t comment on your site. Every time I try to the auto fill kicks in with someone else name – Mary Saracino – any ideas here?


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