Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Yellow Birch

There are several mature yellow birches [Betula alleghaniensis Britt.] in the Heartwood woodlot. This tree is located to the north of a clearing in Area C of the Woodlot Management Plan. I have always been fond of the weird and different birch tree. Birches are normally white while this birch is a beautiful coppery bronze.

During my high school years in the late '60's, I lived some 4 kilometres (2½ miles) out in the country west of the Island of Montreal in Quebec. During the winter and right after school and just before supper, I used to regularly step into my snowshoes and traipse out to the woods past the fields behind our house. The snow was typically 60 centimetres (2 feet) deep those days. Being mid winter I would head out when the sun was still up but by the time I was heading home it would be dark.

Armed with a small hand axe, pocket-knife and a few matches, once I reached my sheltered favourite spot in the woods, I would lay down a small mat of criss-crossed branches on top of the snow and build a small campfire upon it. Using the same spot all winter, over time the small fireplace would develop into a large hole in the snow about 2 metres (6 feet) wide. The snow inside this circle would be melted down to the earth layer.

I would place a log on the snow at the edge of the hole to sit on where I would frequently sit and gaze silently into the flame and listen to the crackling of the fire, the snapping of the frozen branches and distant sounds. This was one of my ways of dealing with turbulent teenage and high school years. In later years I remember my mother saying that I always came home relaxed from these walks. I have learnt since that indeed the characteristics of the flicker of a fire are known to be natural rhythms and relaxing and therapeutic to the brain and is recognised as a meditation and relaxation exercise.

The yellow birch bark as with all the other birches provided an excellent fire starter. The ribbons of bark would light even when wet. I would always only remove the loose flags of bark but never injured the core bark of the tree. This made fire starting easy and after a while I was able to start fires at any outside temperature and even in rain. In time you learned tricks such as to use the small dead branches at the base of coniferous trees as kindling. These were usually dry even after a heavy rain.

What I recall of that forest was that the yellow birches tended to be isolated trees among other species. This forest was a sugar bush dominated by the sugar maple [Acer Saccharum] and ash with poplar along the clearing edges. The forest must have been tapped for maple sugar at one time, since there were remains of a sugar cabin in the forest. The remains included a damaged 3 metre (10 feet) long maple sap steaming pan or kettle. This rubble must have already been at least 10 years old and thus dated back to the '50s.

After about an hour I would slowly let the fire die out and head home in the dark, striding back on my snowshoes in the blue glistening snow, which often sparkled in the moon light against the backdrop of the black silhouetted trees. That was all part of the experience.

No comments: