Medicine of the Birches

At some point in our lives, we have had a relationship with a tree. As small children, even young trees tower over us, and as we are held in arms, placed on a blanket in a grassy park or pushed along in a carriage, the dancing leaves and dappled light of yellow and green are some of the first things we see of the world outside our nurseries. As we grow older, we wrap our own limbs around big branches and see how high we can climb, heeding the call that all children hear...Come up! Up! Up! Sitting in a crook upon high, we are given a vantage point usually reserved for adults, the chance to take in our world all at once, to feel big and suddenly know how it might feel to be tall, to be a bird or even to have the perspective of the sun and stars. It is often in the tween and teenage years that a relationship with a tree can also become sanctuary, not only offering perspective from upon high, but also a way to escape the reach of adults, who often treat us as children but expect adult behavior. 

For part three of this series on deepening nature connection, Milla Prince of The Woman Who Married a Bear calls to you from her vantage point high in the arms of an ancient birch. You had a tree like this, the one in your own hometown that whispered cool secrets on hot July days and beckoned you to step off the sidewalk. Milla is there now, inviting you to re-member your own dear and deep relationship with these beloved ancestors. Milla is a keeper of secrets herself, and it is always a treat to be regaled by her erudite stories, born and rooted in Nordic soil, now woven through with strands of sea, sand and forest from an island in the PNW.

Milla introduces the concept of Tree Essences in this piece. For those of you unfamiliar with essences, be they flower, tree or plant, you can go HERE to read about what they are, as well as their history.

                

When I was younger, for a few years my hiding place was the crook of a large, forked birch tree. It stood in the backyard of an old people’s home, though I never saw any of its inhabitants in the yard, or even in the windows. I found this tree, because on its other side was the squat, tile-walled town theatre, where my mother worked. The tree was old, as far as birches go, in this country of old birches, at least two hundred years, maybe more. Its trunk was too thick for my arms to circle. I was thirteen, a difficult age. 

In May, when the leaves of the birch were barely bigger than my fingernail, “mouse-ears” they’re called in Finnish, the fat catkins still yellow with pollen, scattering it in the wind like magic-dust, I began climbing the tree. From a single, sturdy branch within arms-reach I could hoist myself up to the where the tree split into three trunks, a natural seat. I rested my back against the straight, thick bulk of the Mother Tree.  My feet dangled on either side of the trunk. If I pulled my knees up against my chest, or put them up on one of low braches, my body sort of became absorbed by the tree, each part of it resting on a part of the birch. At first it wasn’t much of a shelter, but as the leaves grew, I became more and more invisible. The Finnish Riippakoivu, the Silver Birch, grows abundant leaf-clusters in the summer, dangling downward in great cascades. I could sit there for hours watching the light move trough the leaves swaying in the breeze. The tree was my refuge, a place in space I created for myself, from where I could observe the world unnoticed, consider things for myself. It was there that I planned for my escape from my podunk little town, my glorious future. Arctic summer nights were long and light, and I had nothing but time.

Had I known then, that there was a way, to distill the essence of that birch, to carry it with me wherever I went, it would have seemed to me like Magic, with a capital M. I was trying so hard to outgrow the idea of such Magic, because it was considered too childish by everyone around me, but on some deeper level I must have known that it was very real. The Tree Essence of Birch is about expanding your horizons, broadening your vision, and opening to new experiences, which is exactly what a thirteen-year-old body yearns to do. I came to that tree to medicate myself, to inoculate myself against the cynicism of Junior High, of pop culture, Top 40 Hits, the adult world. This act of self-medicating with nature, I knew even then, with little formal instruction, was something necessary and important, a reminder that I was intimately connected with the natural world. 

Trees hold a singular place in Finnish mythology, consciousness, and landscape. They are everywhere, they ripple out like evergreen waves from the city centers, into the wilderness. The cold makes the Finnish pines grow tall and skinny, their trunks an orange hew like dusk. We have so many words for groves of different trees: Kuusikko, a spruce grove, Männikkö, a pine grove, Lepikkö, an alder grove, and Koivikko, a birch grove. 

In the old days, most everything we owned was made from them: our homes, tools, dishes, medicines, even our clothes. In tough times my people would augment their bread dough with ground up inner bark of Pinus Sylvestris. Our Gods lived in the trees, our ancestors were trees. In the old lore, each of our trees contained different powers and spirits, had different uses, different medicine, and yes, different Magic as well.

Making Tree Essences, gently placing a living branch into a glass pitcher full of water from our well, or a spring, and letting the sun shine into it, is to me a continuation of that ancient relationship with trees. I rest my head on the trunk of the tree, and think about the countless generations of people before me, who relied on their good relations with these huge beings, their understanding of how to use every part of them wisely, for nothing less than their survival. When I make tree medicine, coaxing the power and spirit of a big, old being into a tiny vial, to keep in my pocket, I feel that I’m carrying on a conversation that’s been going for thousands of years. That’s all it takes, a stroll in the woods, placing some part of my body against the bark, a pitcher of water, an intuition of where to go.

It was in that birch tree that I first read parts of the Finnish National Epic, Kalevala; a collection of song-poems as old the pyramids, perhaps as old as much of human civilization.  Slowly I read through the verses, the ancient songs filling my body. Their central message is the idea that everything around us is part of a kind of universal spell that we can hear if we tune in, strain our ears for the hidden voice of the world: The magpies, the crows, the mountain ashes, the roof of heaven, the murky lake water glittering in the distance, all sang it to me in that tree, and they sing it to me still: 


“There are many other legends,
Incantations that were taught me,
That I found along the wayside,
Gathered in the fragrant copses,
Blown me from the forest branches,
Culled among the plumes of pine-trees,
Scented from the vines and flowers,
Whispered to me as I followed
Flocks in land of honeyed meadows” 
–Kalevala (Translation by John Martin Crawford)

You can find more Milla magic at her virtual home, The Woman Who Married a Bear. Be sure to check out her apothecary, Fireweed and Nettle, where she frequently stocks hand and wildcrafted flower, tree and plant essences. 

If you would like to learn how to make flower essences yourself, stay tuned for a tutorial as the final part of this series, both on how to deepen into communion with plants and flowers, and also how to make the essences themselves. (For the rest of the series: Part One and Part Two).