The White One in the Woods


1. The language of trees

In the ancient language Ogham, the word tree also means letter, giving us a forest whenever we write. According to Celtic legend, the god Ogma inked runes on birch bark and named his new alphabet Beith-luis-nin (Birch-Rowan-Ash) for the order of the first three symbols. In this story, birch is a perfect embodiment of text, being both the book and what is written within: not only the actual parchment containing language, but also the first in the ensuing alphabet. The oldest remnants of Ogham date back to around 400 A.D. and are stone pillars engraved with names. How lovely to think of the long-dead’s last traces etched into rock columns that, like trees, wear the delicate lace of lichen and stand tall against the wind, years, and rain.

Son of Brighid, the goddess of poetry, Ogma was born to invent the alphabet in the same way a cluster of grapes ripens upon the vine; he was already the god of eloquence. In surviving images (coins, illuminated texts, carved stone), Ogma’s mouth is linked by chains to the ears of those around him to show how he enslaves the surrounding throng with his speech. In a different story, Ogma uses language’s innate power to stave off death. When the Sidhe plot to carry the wife of Lugh, the sun god, into their enchanted underworld, Ogma engraves birch seven times on a branch to make a talisman of language to keep her safe. Because birch is the first letter as well as the earliest tree to signal spring, a litany of its name repeated is enough to protect against eternal night.

There’s a mirror in the sky of what is written on paper. According to Robert Graves’s erudite and erratic The White Goddess, Ogham is also a calendar that ties thirteen trees to the waxing and waning of thirteen moons. The birch moon lasts from late December through mid-January and cradles the solstice like a greengage plum in a cupped hand. Because the solstice is the fulcrum between winter’s dark and the early promise of spring, the birch moon contains both the end and the beginning of things.

This cold stretch of weeks contains my birthday and so I’ve found myself typing, “what does it mean to be born under the birch moon” into Google as if I were a diviner casting oracle bones. Our modern magic answers that those born in this sweep of weeks are melancholy, but nurturing: despite their own darkness, they coax seeds to fruition in the soil within those they are near. They are frequently lonely, but true love will assuage their sorrows later in life; determined, they unwaveringly clamber over life’s sharp stones. The stag who roams solitary in the forest—crowned with branches, his hide white as bark—is their animal and the old gods who protect them are the White Goddess Brighid, Venus, and Thor, deities of poetry, love, and strength. Those born under the birch moon will experience more sharply than others everything their tree symbolizes: renewal and restoration, but also a long darkness that must be endured.


2. To be both charred branches and the first green seedling

Last summer was a difficult season, the worst I’ve had in years. I bloodied an eye from weeping, capillaries branching like red vines around the hazel nest where my pupil gleams like a black egg. Someone I treasured cared little about me: I reached out my hand and the rope untied itself, twists of smoke that drifted away. My book wouldn’t sell. I hated my job and unexpected expenses seemed unending (broken apartment door; sick dog; impinged nerve in my hip). I felt like I’d woken one morning at the bottom of an arid well: I was thirsty, but lived inside only the memory of water. Sometimes, if I craned my head, I could still see a tiny circle of blue sky above me, but mostly my hands clawed uselessly at the dirt.

I grew tired of calcifying in my solitude, thinking of all the different ways my life had fallen apart, so instead I surfed the Internet’s atavistic archives, clicking from link to link. Researching birches became a form of projection, disassociation as a promise of survival: my life suddenly manageable if linked to a tree associated with all I want most.

Birch is a ladder the spirits can clamber, a door that opens the sky. Siberian shamans use the birch for their initiation rituals: the tree guards the door to the afterlife and so the shaman-in-training must carve nine notches in its trunk to represent the nine steps he will ascend. For others, birch signifies the power of the body, both human and divine. The Anglo-Saxons danced in birch groves to honor Eostre, their goddess of spring, while Norsemen associated the tree with Freya, goddess of fecundity, and Frigga, who ruled over marriage. In these religions, the birch stood as a symbol not only of birth, but the continuance of communal human life.

This association with fertility and renewal is a river we can sail through the years: later, in medieval pastorals, the maypole is almost always a birch—ribbon-draped, encircled by couples dancing, it’s a symbol of the phallus rising ascendant under the sun’s honeyed light. On May 1st in Germanic folk customs, young men left decorated birch trees in front of their sweetheart’s house, and in Wales girls encouraged their lovers with the gift of a birch twig. If all went well, the result was marriage and children, and after the birthing, a birch cradle to hold the child in its wooden arms.

In the Welsh Cad Godeu, the magician-warrior Gwydion turns all the trees of the forest into troops to help him fight Arawn, the lord of the dead. The epic tells us “we have emanated from birches,” associating birch again with the origin of human life. The Finns, on the other hand, are less concerned with birth than with the long years that come after. They claim birch as a symbol of their national character because it weathers harsh conditions with seeming indifference, displaying what they call sisu, the capacity to endure. For the Druids, the tree symbolized renewal, an association that dendrology supports: in the literal, as in the figurative, world, birch is a pioneer species—not only the earliest to wear spring’s green ribbons, but also the first to return to areas ravaged by forestry or fire.

In the winter-depths of the shadowed forest, birches shine like thin torches, white as the frozen ground, but after the solstice they become the coming-out-of-the-dark trees, the first in the forest to leaf. I spent the summer felled as in clear-cutting by foresters, sliced in half inside somehow and timbered, burned, and then, for a while, I was charred branches only and leaves of fragile ash. Now I take a pill each morning to usher me back from the dark, round and white as a little birch moon, bright as the papery bark.


3. I would like to be paper-thin and live inside the world’s folded-up maps

One morning I awoke thinking birches and then the word echoed in my head for a month. What do I want? A connection to old magic through language; renewal after destruction by quick fire and long months of ice; to be concealed safe as a dryad hiding beneath the pale trunk. Nomen est numen, as the old adage says: to name is to know. Camille Paglia extends this by claiming, “to know is to control,” while Jamaica Kincaid revises it into “to name is to possess.” If I could make a litany of birch names, would it give me power over what the tree signifies?

On a rainy night in Europe or Asia, stray travelers shelter in groves of Sicilian birch, alder-leaf (the name almost a tautology: a tree whose leaves resemble other leaves), Carpathian, Siberian silver, or monarch (as in both king and butterfly). In North America, there are yellow birch, red birch, sweet birch (cherry or black), and birches both blue and gray. Your terrain will tell you if you’ve found bog, river, or swamp birch; other types are named for their uses—paper birch and canoe (think of all the rivers this skin has sailed). In some regions, there are dwarf birch: imagine being immense as Wonderland’s Alice walking through those tiny trees—so lovely and yet how much more terrifying the wolves would be as furred giants roaming through a forest they eclipse in height.

These species’ names are only variations: the patronymic—birch—originates from either the old Germanic birka, whose root bhereg means “white, bright; to shine”; the Anglo-Saxon beorgan (“to protect or shelter”); or the Sanskrit bhurga, meaning “that which is written upon.” Here are my desires rendered as a triptych: to be the home for language, to shelter, and to—as with all beloveds—be radiant in the eyes of those who hold me dear.

The root word bhereg (white, shining) carries the echo of two of the birch’s divine incarnations: in Russia, the tree was worshipped as the White Goddess, a name shared with Brighid, the Irish goddess of fertility, poetry, and spring. Ogma, her son, created Beith-luis-nin (Birch-Rowan-Ash), the tree alphabet and, after the death of another son in battle, Brighid burnished her grief into song: her keening became the first poetry. I cast my name-net further and draw in the god of love, her half-brother Aengus, whose name differs only in a single letter from Angus, my patronym. Substitute an r for my n and we have all-seeing Argus, the Greek giant with one hundred eyes. Language circles back if you want it to: birch, the tree of my moon-month, is sometimes called “The Watchful Tree” for the dark ovals like eyes embossed on its bark. We search for patterns to give us reasons to keep going and so I weave these threads together to feel less alone. I am so tired of my real life; I want to open the door to a myth and believe I belong.


4. It is important to be useful           

In folklore, the birch is a symbol of protection. On Midsummer’s Eve, Finns hang birch boughs above their doors to bring good luck, while in Hertsfordshire, birch trees tied with red and white ribbons are placed next to stable doors to ward off harm. Carrying a twig in your pocket protects against lightning and a few sticks affixed to a cradle will frighten away fairies who might otherwise steal your child. In the Fenian Cycle’s great romance, Diarmaid and Grainne consummate their love on a bed made of birch boughs when they elope. Their story is a tragedy so this bridal bed echoes the strophais, an Irish litter made from birch branches that carried the honored dead to the grave. In this story, birch builds a paradox: a leafy carriage for corpses and the bed where lovers embrace.

Another paradox: because of its resinous oils, even when wet or freshly hewn or frozen, a birch forest is a box of matches waiting to burn. This is why on St. John’s Night in Little Russia, villagers drive a birch stake into the ground, wrap it in straw, and set it ablaze, saying, May my flax grow as tall as this flame. Paradoxically, the same oil that makes birch burn also protects against decay. The Vindolanda tablets, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain, were inked on its bark; they are the best source of information about life on Hadrian’s Wall. That the bark tablets have survived so long seems a kind of miracle. Another miracle: the inhabitants of Umea in Switzerland believe a row of birch stopped the fire that nearly torched their city in 1888; ever after, they’ve referred to their home as the City of Birches to honor their wooden guardians.

I used to believe myself a protector, a mentor of sorts. A young friend once asked me for guidance during his dark time in the woods. When he found a brighter path, he left me behind, as anyone leaving the shadow-realm would as they rush towards the light. The old stories tell us this: Odysseus abandoning the ghosts of Tiresias, of his fallen warriors, and his mother; even Orpheus leaves Eurydice, his beloved, in the underworld. When I saw I could not hold on, I lashed out—an old wolf standing in the den mouth, snarling—and said things that every day since I regret. I harmed instead of protecting, and so how am I useful?

I feel old now in a way I never did before: lines on my face, a new weakness in my body. We are all written upon whether we would choose it or not. I do not want to inscribe my own pain on other people; all I want is to learn how to write down what I see.

Let me be an encyclopedia, an archive. Here are more facts: you can eat birch—its leaves are rich in vitamin C and the inner bark ground into flour is a famine food, a last resort. Birch sap can be crystallized into sugar or fermented into wine. Herbalists prescribe spring buds to treat fevers and you can soak the bark and make a cast to set broken bones. Birch tar is used to treat skin ailments; conversely, it’s the base for glue on arrows when you wish to send a swift sharpness through the air. And so birch is—like everything—capable of both healing and harm.

What I wanted most from my life was to flourish like green leaves with someone I love and to protect those I hold close. Instead, I’ve lost many of the people I would have made myself a fortress for—a wall standing between their bodies and enemies, a roof arching above to shelter against lightning’s jagged knife. Life’s long attrition is tiring; sometimes now, at my loneliest, all I want is to curl up in a tangle of tree roots and sleep.

I have been trying to maneuver my way through things for a long time, to understand that bleakness will end. Mostly I think of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches,” how he yearns to climb “Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, / But dipped its top and set me down again.” I too have wanted “to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over”—not never to return, but just to be briefly absent. I understand wishing for that ladder, the in-between-ness; for a tree to sweep you up and then set you back down to start again.

I live in a city whose forests are buildings, and I have been tethered to my computer all morning, typing text into a simulacrum of paper while the search engines lead me from place to place. One link opens to birch trees in winter—white among snowdrifts, black cross-hatch patches on their trunks. The next image is a leafy waterfall of green. In Scandinavian divination runes, bjarkan, the birch-twig, is the “Rune of Transformation,” signifying both gestation and rebirth. I let an algorithm foretell my future—coincidence and computer programming as prophecy, a kind of comfort to carry with me as I turn the machine off and walk forward into my day.


Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.

Kate Angus is an editor at Augury Books and the Creative Writing Advisory Board Member for The Mayapple Center for Arts and Humanities. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review, Subtropics, Best New Poets 2010, The Awl, and Verse Daily. She is the recipient of A Room of Her Own Foundation’s “Orlando” Prize for Creative Nonfiction, The Southeast Review’s creative nonfiction prize, and an artists residency on the Wildfjords trail in Iceland. More from this author →