Tuesday 19 March 2019

Country Matters: Heaney's birch a shimmering symbol of love

SILVER BIRCH: The tree is a symbol of youth and love
SILVER BIRCH: The tree is a symbol of youth and love

Joe Kennedy

The silver birch, its pale bark peeling like pages from an abandoned book, is about and above me as, below, bobbing snowdrops cluster and there are tiny petals of magenta and pink of plants I cannot name.

Underfoot remains the dead mulch of leaf-shedding and, after stormy days, snapped strands of twigs join the lifeless, along with bird guano, to return, eventually, to the earth. I look for primroses in known places but there are no signs of emerging rosettes of wrinkled leaves.

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The birch seems to suggest it is giving up a whitened ghost to the elements, a sadness of failing hopes hanging in the rustling wind which shakes a little life in other leafy appendages.

Seamus Heaney saw signs in a birch as a "tree of desire, a "shimmer with sexual possibility, even when it arrives in botanical Latin". He quoted another poet, Louis Simpson, on birch as a "room filled with breathing/The sway and whisper of love".

Robert Frost, after an ice storm in a New England wood, saw birches bowed "like girls on their hands and knees, throwing their hair before them over their heads in the sun".

The tree is a symbol of youth and love. Tom Pakenham, a serious tree scribe, sees Betala pendula as a species that produces a million seeds and which can travel many miles to new settlements. He found a magnificent specimen at Rothiemurchus in Scotland though its once silver bark had been mottled and corrugated with age, a veteran of a century yet with "the envelope unbroken, a mesh of delicate twigs ready to inflate into a balloon of pale green leaves".

Birch, though, is not one of the Nobles of the Wood in the early Irish 'laws of neighbourhood' and the king of the sidhe, Iubhadan, suggests to "burn it certain sure". The other commoners are alder, willow, hawthorn, rowan, elm and cherry but Mad Sweeney, king of the Dal nAraide, banished by St Ronan to live among the thorns, considered it "smooth and blessed".

In the Celtic world, birch was a symbol of purity and grace, of birth and re-birth after death. Hats of birch were placed on dead chieftains who were dressed in silk.

In the famous Scots poem The Wife of Usher's Well, three dead sons return to their mother wearing "hats o' the birk" which grew at the gates of Paradise. The young king Aengus of Bru na Boinne, a god of love, about whom wild birds flew in enchantment, was linked to birch, the first symbol of the Ogham alphabet, 'Beith'. And in a more contemporary, but very older Ireland, birch sprays were tied to horses and hung on doors, and baby cradles were made of it to ward off the Little People who might want to steal the child!

For Seamus Heaney, whose words on every scrap of paper seem to hold the attention of his fans, there was a special piece of timber which he found beside a New Hampshire pond and kept on his desk at Harvard. It was "a little torso a'gleam in its own whiteness" and when he learned birch would not grow in shade his keepsake "began to shine in my mind like a platonic idea".

Seamus Heaney's, 'The Whisper of Love' appeared in Granta No 102 published in 2008.

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