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White Birches Offer Many Uses

″…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.”

– “Birches” by Robert Frost

Every time I read Frost’s poem, I am reminded of when I too was a “swinger of birches.” Near the house where I grew up was a large rock that was probably 20 feet high and at least 30 feet across on the top. The rock had a flat top upon which sweet fern and saplings had miraculously taken root.

From the ground below the rock, a cluster of birch trees reached skyward along the side of the steepest part of the rockface. The birch saplings were 4 inches or more in diameter and 20 or more feet tall. One time, my older brother scrambled to the high edge of the rock, grabbed the top of one of the birch trees, stepped from the edge and clung to the top part of the tree. He then leaned away from the center of the tree until his weight bent the tree downward. I watched in awe as the tree slowly swung down and brought him safely to the ground. He soon had me following, and after several “swings on the birch,” the tree had lost much of its spring yet had not snapped. That young birch tree was pliable and, much like our fearless, youthful bodies, had the ability to bend but not break.

There are several species of trees to be admired for usefulness, but the white birch is right up there as one of the most interesting. Its pure white bark makes it stand out from the dark grey hues of other trees, which makes it a popular tree for photographing.

Here in The Last Green Valley, white birch is not abundant because it favors the cooler hills and mountain areas of New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. The tallest white birch I know of is in a field adjacent to Route 44 in Pomfret (on the northern side of the road across from Tyrone Road). About 10 years ago the landowners cleared the field of shrubs and trees to create a small field. The beautiful tall white birch was left in the middle of the field for all to admire. It literally gleams in the sun, and I always venture a glance as I drive by.

White birch is a relatively short-lived species, which makes the tall one I admire in Pomfret even more special. It has difficulty handling heat and humidity and usually only lives about 30 years in warmer regions south of eastern and central Massachusetts. It can live up to 100 years in colder climates, and this native to North America is found mostly in the far northern United States and Canada. It is also found in more isolated locations as far south as the Hudson Valley of New York and Pennsylvania and higher elevations of the mountains of North Carolina, New Mexico and Colorado.

The Latin name for white birch is Betula papyrifera and the tree is known as paper birch, white birch, canoe birch or silver birch. Some tree guides list it first as paper birch and others as white birch. The reason for the paper birch name is obvious. The trunk of the tree is covered in a paper-thin bark that becomes pure white as the tree gets older. Saplings or trees younger than about five years have a bark of brown and red, making it hard to distinguish them from other species of birch. The white bark of the older tree separates into thin sheets that often curl and roll up revealing a pinkish, almost salmon color inner bark.

The name canoe birch is due to it being extensively used by Native Americans for covering their canoes. They also used the bark for making baskets, cups and other useful decorative items. The birch bark canoe is both durable and very lightweight. It is made by stretching the stripped bark over frames of northern white cedar and sewing the seams with thread made from tamarack roots. The seams are then sealed and caulked with pine or balsam fir resin. Born of the northern woods, the traditional birch bark canoe is a craft of both exceptional beauty and cultural relevance.

A few years ago, I purchased “The Survival of the Bark Canoe” by John McPhee. The book tells the story of Henri Vaillancourt from southern New Hampshire and the process he uses to construct authentic birch bark canoes. In the book, McPhee recounts his and Vaillancourt’s 150-mile adventure into the waterways of the Maine woods. McPhee’s description of the trip is interspersed with details about the evolution of the bark canoe and the various construction forms used by the different tribes that built them.

The wood of the white birch is a combination of lightweight, tough, hard and strong, making it perfect for various household wooden items including bobbins and spools, clothes pins, broom handles, toys, flooring, furniture and even toothpicks and popsicle sticks. The hardness and density of the wood also makes it a good firewood when well-seasoned and dry.

White birch leaves are oval, pointed and rounded at the base. They are two to three inches long and one to two inches wide. The leaf edges are toothed and a dull green on the upper side and yellow-green on the lower side.

The white birch is a medium height tree, typically growing more than 60 feet tall and sometimes more than 100 feet, with a trunk of 30 inches in diameter. In a forest setting it grows a single trunk but as a landscape tree in the open it may develop multiple trunks or branches close to the ground.

I hope next time you see a white birch you’ll consider the many uses this amazing tree has provided over the ages. Perhaps when you use a toothpick or enjoy a popsicle, you’ll think of the source of wood. Or, when you enjoy your next paddle in a canoe, you’ll remember the progenitor and basic design of all canoes was born in the northern woods

Robert Frost’s poem, when read in its entirety, is a reflective poem of an older man contemplating his youth when he swung on birch trees for fun. The quote at the beginning of this column is from the last few lines of the poem. The poem begins with:

“When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter dark trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.”

For me, the sight of a white birch helps me appreciate our beautiful New England region and our home here in The Last Green Valley. I wonder at its many uses and am thankful for its role in giving us the modern canoe, which is my preferred way of exploring our rivers. But like Frost, when I see a group of birch saplings, I recall the time many years ago when I followed my older brother in a leap of faith, to trust the resilience of a young tree and became a swinger of birches.

Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in the region for more than 35 years and can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.