Saturday 17 March 2018

Country Matters: Tree of desire at the gates of paradise

Silver birch is a symbol of purity and rebirth in the ancient Celtic world
Silver birch is a symbol of purity and rebirth in the ancient Celtic world

Joe Kennedy

Lop of silver birch (Betula pendula) side-swiped by human hands and cast before me, as pearls to trim for winter fires (with bow saw bent) made a tidy harvest to gather and leafy strings to separate from shiny gold tracery and leave to decay.

The branches had arrived unseen, cast over a wall where they had dangled like bridges too far, overhanging shadows, an invasion on another property.

With the saw, there was a companion, a hard-handled Mauser of several blades, one toothed and cased in protective sheath, a useful tool found in a ship's chandlers. The rifles and machine-pistols are better-known products of this arms manufacturer. The special blade was an excellent saw.

Although it is attractive and its gently peeling bark marks its distinctiveness, the birch is not one of the Nobles of the Wood in the early Irish Laws of Neighbourhood, and the folkloric Lay of Iubhadan, king of the Sidhe, refers to "beithe ba blad buan...though it feebly droops, birch that is so good/ Burn it certain sure, stem of the swelling bud". I can vouch for the bud-joints; autumnal decay is needed for snapping.

Birch may be among the commoners in wood-lore - along with alder, willow, hawthorn, rowan, elm and cherry - but Mad Sweeney, the king who fled the company of men to live wild, considered it "smooth and blessed". In his lay to the trees, it is the "melodious proud one, /Delightful entwining branch in the top of thy crown".

Birch is a symbol of purity and grace, of birth and re-birth after death in the ancient Celtic world. Dead chieftains were dressed in silk wearing hats of birch. In the Scottish poem, The Wife of Usher's Well, three dead sons return to their mother wearing 'a hat o'the birk' which grew at the gates of paradise. Birch's qualities of youth and love link it to Aengus of Bru na Boinne, a god so attractive that four kisses were said to follow him around in the form of birds.

There are many birch fables in the folklore of these islands where fires are lit and sprays hung over doors.

There is a Scottish tale of a man being abducted by a phantom horseman named Headless Hugh, who escaped by clinging to a birch branch until the cock crowed. It is the first tree to have colonised open ground, and the first symbol of the Ogham alphabet, 'Beith'.

Seamus Heaney has written of birch as a "tree of desire, a'shimmer with sexual possibility". He quoted the poet Louis Simpson, of reminding him of "a room filled with breathing/ The sway and whisper of love". And Robert Frost, after an ice-storm in a New England wood, saw birches bowed down "like girls on their hands and knees, throwing their hair before them over their heads in the sun".

Heaney, beside a New Hampshire pond, had found a thick-stemmed piece of birch sapling whose blunt shape on his desk at Harvard became "a little torso agleam in its own whiteness".

When he learned that birch is light-demanding and will not grow in the shade of others, the keepsake "began to shine in my mind like a platonic idea". Heaney's essay is The Whisper of Love: Granta No 102, published in 2008.

Sunday Independent

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