Paper birches and polar bears

have something in common. Neither one is actually white, it’s only a trick of the eye. White is what we see when an object absorbs no visible light but instead reflects back to our eyes all colors in equal proportion. Paper birch trees appear white to us because they reflect most of the sun’s rays. In contrast, dark trees – all others, pretty much – reflect very little but instead absorb nearly all colors. Dark trees absorb light, white trees reflect it.

Same with bears. Polar bear hair shafts are actually hollow, which allows the fur to reflect back the light of the sun. Much like snow.

You can etch a love letter into a piece of the bark of a Betula papyrifera. On the other hand, it’s more difficult to write on the hide of a polar bear. Also, acres of birch forest thrive in Maine, whereas as far as I know polar bears never wander down to so southern a clime.

Birches grow like weeds, says the proprietor of Balsam Hill Farm, where he is “2 years into a 30 year project” to make a living growing Christmas trees.

Some of the balsams are teeny – pampered in a small wood frame. It’s hard to grok that they will one day be seven feet tall, standing fully lighted and dressed in someone’s greatroom.

In fact, he says, the local workers here call the birches that literally, weeds. His fragrant trees can be purchased on the honor system; just drop the cash or check into the red box after hours and drive away with your prize.

Weeds? I guess some people call weeds beautiful. See: “Long live the weeds,” by poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

We’re in a hamlet called Hope, just a few miles from the general store owned by Jon Fishman of the rock band Phish. (Great place to go out and grab an organic vegan pizza for lunch when you’re sick of your yurt.) The fat balsams at the dirt-road farm are dwarfed by the delicate towering white and grey birches.

The roots of all these trees are interconnected, says the boss, kindly taking time away from ringing up peoples’ trees and wreaths, so it’s actually one big organism. He might be thinking of aspen, which do grow as a clone.

Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard describes a related phenomenon in her book The Mother Tree, which has garnered attention even beyond dendrological circles. She talks about how trees communicate using underground fungal networks. Simard  grew up in a British Canadian logging family before becoming a plant biologist, learning about how trees connect with each other and what they need to thrive, with paper birch a particular focus along with Douglas firs. 

Balsam Tree Farm grows so much birch it sells much of it for pulp.

It also makes logs available split for burning and whole for fireplace decoration.

You can wander among the birches when visiting to collect a balsam and admire the sheer abundance of white trunks shimmering in the Maine sun. In fact, Betula’s common name, “birch,” is derived from an old Germanic root, birka, with the Proto-Indo-European root bherəg, “white, bright; to shine.”  Betula papyrifera’s bright white relates to the property called albedo, or how much light is reflected or absorbed by an object’s surface. The tips of its twigs have been described as violet by Nordic Noir writer Asa Larsson.

There are around 60 types of birch around the world. Moose devour birch when they can get it, not because they like the taste so much but because it fills their stomachs.

In the local food CoOp, in Belfast, birch syrup stands shoulder to shoulder on the shelf with maple syrup. Probably some people here like it better on their waffles.

Poets have long extolled the tree, famously Robert Frost.

He wrote in 1915 about a boyish fantasy of climbing birches:

…Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

A stand of paper birch, in Maine, with the cold air all around. No lovelier place exists.

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