The lady of the woods

Here since the Ice Age, the sil­ver birch, or white god­dess, has long played sym­bolic and prac­ti­cal roles in many cul­tures, dis­cov­ers Ian Mor­ton

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En­dowed with an an­cient and myth­i­cal his­tory, the sil­ver birch is sym­bolic, grace­ful and def­i­nitely fe­male, be­lieves Ian Mor­ton

A na­tional stock of ap­proved birch switches was held at Wandsworth Prison

Trees take on a gen­der and the slim and el­e­gant sil­ver birch could only ever be fe­male. To our fore­bears, she was the white god­dess, the lady of the woods and the sil­ver or the birchen maiden. The first tree to show leaf af­ter win­ter, she rep­re­sented pu­rifi­ca­tion and the prom­ise of hope and new be­gin­nings. she was tough, too, botan­i­cally a pi­o­neer species, here since the Ice Age, the first tree to colonise an ex­posed land­scape scoured by se­vere con­di­tions, fire or hu­man ac­tiv­ity.

With some 60 species world­wide, birch will es­tab­lish in rough acidic soil and in tem­per­a­tures that large de­cid­u­ous species do not tol­er­ate. The seeds of our fa­mil­iar sil­ver birch (Be­tula pen­dula), of a winged type known as sa­mara, carry on the wind and a ma­ture spec­i­men may pro­duce one mil­lion of them in a sea­son. Lit­tle won­der that, in early times, the tree took on a mys­ti­cal role.

To the Celts, the tree they called Beith be­gan the Ogham tree al­pha­bet, was de­voted to the god­dess Brigid and was cel­e­brated in the first lu­nar month of the Ogham cal­en­dar.

Druids greeted the spring equinox by drink­ing mead of birch sap and honey and eat­ing bread made from the cam­bium tis­sue be­tween the outer bark and the wood.

Bundles of birch switches were wielded to drive out the ex­hausted spir­its of the old year, a rit­ual that sur­vives in beat­ing the bounds in Chris­tian parishes.

The tree made good fire logs, so birch­wood bon­fires were lit to cel­e­brate Beltane, the fes­ti­val of re­ju­ve­na­tion. In the me­dieval pe­riod, the trunks were used for may­poles, logs dressed in red-and-white rags were propped against sta­ble doors to pro­tect the oc­cu­pants and, on Mid­sum­mer’s Eve, boughs were hung over cot­tage doors to pro­tect and bring good for­tune. Twigs could be used for thatch­ing and an oily birch tar was used for tan­ning.

In Norse mythol­ogy, the birch was sa­cred to Freyja, wife of Odin and god­dess of love, lust, beauty, war and death. In Druidic Wales, de­vo­tion to the tree was echoed by Blodeuwedd, wife of Lleu, the might­i­est Celtic god across the Eu­ro­pean re­gion, among whose sundry war­rior at­tributes was the power to drive out evil. That mythol­ogy, to­gether with the in­clu­sion of birch rods in Ro­man mag­is­trates’

fasces, may lie be­hind the choice of the birch for cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment in times past.

Ju­di­cial birch­ing in­volved a bound bun­dle of four or five twigs, not nec­es­sar­ily of birch, but per­haps of wil­low or hazel—they are all the same fam­ily—and, ap­par­ently, espe­cially painful. Which­ever was used, the birch car­ried the stigma and flog­ging on naked skin was widely prac­tised in Europe through the 18th cen­tury on­wards.

A de­press­ing for­mal­ity pre­vailed in English pris­ons and re­for­ma­to­ries with re­cip­i­ents placed on a ‘birch­ing don­key’ or ‘birch­ing pony’; Scot­land em­ployed a ‘birch­ing ta­ble’ with holes through which the arms were in­serted. Many line draw­ings of the time il­lus­trate birch­ings, sug­gest­ing a pub­lic ap­petite for what might to­day be termed pun­ish­ment porn.

Delin­quents up to the age of 14 in Eng­land and Wales and up to 16 in Scot­land faced court-or­dered birch­ing un­til its abo­li­tion in 1948 and it was re­tained un­til 1962 as a male adult pun­ish­ment for vi­o­lent breaches of prison dis­ci­pline. A na­tional stock of ap­proved switches was held at Wandsworth Prison for is­sue to other jails on re­quest. The Chan­nel Is­lands ad­min­is­tered birch­ing un­til the mid 1960s and the Isle of Man un­til 1976.

At least the Victorians found a pos­i­tive role for birch wood. Hard and straight of grain, it proved ex­cel­lent ma­te­rial for the reels,

In the me­dieval folk canon, the birch was benev­o­lent. To carry a twig warded off ma­lign in­flu­ences

bob­bins and spin­dles on the great clat­ter­ing ma­chines that cre­ated Lan­cashire’s cot­ton in­dus­try—birch as a fam­ily name was first recorded in that county.

Most of the wood came from Scot­land, where the sil­ver birch and re­lated downy birch thrive and sev­eral pla­ce­names re­flect the species’ an­cient pres­ence.

In the me­dieval folk canon, the birch was wholly benev­o­lent. To carry a twig warded off ma­lign in­flu­ences. To burn a piece of bark or a dried leaf at the start of a jour­ney or of a new un­der­tak­ing en­cour­aged suc­cess. To in­scribe a wish or a prom­ise in birch char­coal on a piece of birch bark guar­an­teed ful­fil­ment whether it was kept or burned. To sit awhile against the trunk of a birch was a way of quelling anger.

An Ir­ish child placed in a birch cra­dle was pro­tected from ma­li­cious spir­its. High­land farm­ers un­der­stood that a preg­nant cow driven with a birch rod would drop a healthy calf. Con­versely, a bar­ren cow would be­come fer­tile. Witchcraft was scarcely in­volved, al­though crones who be­lieved they flew (a nib­ble of fly agaric, which of­ten grows near birch, pro­voked hal­lu­ci­na­tion) would be mounted on a birch be­som.

Birch bark was one of the ear­li­est means of record­ing in­di­vid­ual hu­man mes­sages— the very name comes from the San­skrit

bhurga, mean­ing tree bark for writ­ing, or from bher, mean­ing shin­ing white. The Bri­tish Li­brary col­lec­tion in­cludes an an­cient scroll 84in long and writ­ten on both sides.

The old­est sur­viv­ing birch-scroll writ­ing is of Bud­dhist texts from the 1st cen­tury bc found in Afghanistan and an­tique bark texts have been found in China, Pak­istan, the Great Lakes re­gion of North Amer­ica and in Rus­sia.

The bark has even been em­ployed in re­cent times. For want of pa­per, vic­tims of Soviet op­pres­sion in­car­cer­ated in gu­lags used strips to write let­ters to their fam­i­lies and, in the Sec­ond World War, Soviet guer­rilla fighters passed out pa­pers and leaflets printed on bark.

To an­cient Siberi­ans, the birch rep­re­sented a lad­der from Earth to Heaven and the tree re­mains a sym­bol of Rus­sian na­ture and beauty. The leg­endary Rus­sian witch Baba Yaga, cel­e­brated in the mu­sic of Mus­sorgsky, dwelt in a birch for­est and used a birch broom to magic away her tracks in the snow.

Else­where, the Chi­nese val­ued the tree for its pro­tec­tive and re­ju­ve­nat­ing pow­ers and North Amer­i­can tribes used birch bark to make drink­ing ves­sels and ca­noes.

In­evitably, the tree has a med­i­cal and recre­ational his­tory. Sap, ex­tracted by drilling a sim­ple hole that leached liq­uid, was drunk fresh or fer­mented. Birch beer be­came a tra­di­tional bev­er­age across North­ern and Eastern Europe, birch tea was widely drunk as a tonic, lax­a­tive and di­uretic. A cor­dial of spring­time sap mixed with honey, cloves and le­mon peel was taken for gout, rheuma­tism and kid­ney and gall-blad­der prob­lems.

In some so­ci­eties, birch wa­ter was val­ued as a sham­poo and hair re­storer. Oil and tar ren­dered from bark treated her­pes, eczema, pso­ri­a­sis, scurvy, cholera and eye and lung com­plaints; soaked bark eased mus­cle pain.

Birch sap has been found to con­tain het­ero­sides, 17 amino acids, vi­ta­mins C and B, potas­sium, mag­ne­sium, iron, cal­cium and a cock­tail of en­zymes, pro­teins and an­tiox­i­dants, with home­o­pathic prepa­ra­tions widely avail­able. Be­tulin from the sil­ver birch shows prom­ise as a skin-can­cer treat­ment. As with so many folk reme­dies, the herbal em­piri­cism of our fore­bears proves sound.

Where myths live and spir­its dwell: en­ter­ing the birch grove at Holme Fen, Cam­bridgeshire, is like pass­ing into leg­end

Venus Chastis­ing Cupid (1628), by Jan van Bi­jlert, in an in­fa­mous tra­di­tion that stretches from Ro­man mag­is­trates to Bri­tish pris­ons

Celtic de­vo­tion to the birch: Blodeuwedd (about 1925–30) by Christo­pher Wil­liams

Catch the drop: birch sap can be drunk neat from the tree or as beer, tea or cor­dial

Witch and birch-for­est dweller Baba Yaga in Vasil­isa the Beau­ti­ful by Ivan Yakovle­vich

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