Tuesday, February 8, 2022

How clean are your trees?

     One of my favorite spots at the Chicago Botanic Garden is this grove of whitespire birches.
     There are many things you can say about birches: their beautiful but resilient bark—I often find hollow bark cylinders washed up on the shore at Ontonagon, the interior wood entirely rotted away, but their surface bark pristine, and keep a particularly fine example in my office at home, as a token of the UP.
     This waterproof quality is why Native Americans made their canoes out of birch bark. If you've never read master nature writer John McPhee, his "The Survival of the Bark Canoe" is a great place to start, with Henri Vaillencourt, 24, making his canoes without a screw or rivet, just cedar ribs lashed together with white pine roots, covered with birch bark. When McPhee met him in 1975, he had made 33 such canoes over the previous nine years, attempting to perfect his art. 
     The trees'  springiness is the basis of a Robert Frost poem, "Birches," where country boys too isolated to learn baseball use them to spring toward the sky. "One could do worse than be a swinger of birches."
     Their chalky pallor made earlier writers mistake birches for being demure. James Russell Lowell calls the birch the "most shy and ladylike of trees." Perhaps long ago they were.
     Though what I really want to mention is the secret behind this particular stand of trees, because they are a perfect illustration of just how much work goes into running a place like the Botanic Garden, effort visitors seldom notice or, in this case I would guess, could possibly imagine.
     Question: why are these trees above so dazzlingly white? Accident? Quirk of gift of nature? Mere botany? Wrong. They're so sparkling white because the Chicago Botanic Garden washes them, sending half a dozen volunteers to scrub the trunks using buckets of soapy water and sponges. They admit to it here. Check it if you don't believe me. I wouldn't blame you because it is indeed incredible.
      I believe that's wonder aplenty for today.


  1. Well, I'd have never guessed that they wash the birches. I always enjoy those trees at the Botanic Garden, as well, though, so I'll bear that in mind the next time I see them. There's a nice grove of birch trees toward the west end of the Bloomingdale Trail (606), too, but I doubt that anybody's washing those...

  2. There were some birches in the backyard of the house where I grew up. Played croquet next to them for years. One must have died, because I remember helping my father cut down a birch tree. I remember thinking "How the hell did the tribes make canoes out of this bark? It's so fragile!" My kid sister peeled off and saved some of the birch bark, and drew pictures on it.

  3. Again, a most wonderful and interesting article.


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