Now Beithe has been named from the Birch owing to its resemblance to the trunk of that tree. Of withered trunk, fair-haired the Birch. —Book of Ballymote
Faded trunk and fair hair.
—Word Ogham of Morainne
Browed beauty, worthy of pursuit.
—Word Ogham of Cuchulain
Most silver of skin.
—Word Ogham of Aonghus
The first of the B entries and the first letter of the Irish ogham, thus grows the pioneering birch! Often one of the first trees to begin growing after an areas as been cleared (by fire, flood, or man), she is as graceful as she is hungry. Birch has always been something of a spooky tree for me, possibly because she thrives in the boggy environs sacred to the devouring Earth of the Germanic tribes of old. She is certainly a feminine tree, and it is easy to imagine her as a lady in a silver gown with a fall of shimmering gold-green hair in the autumn.
Practically speaking, birches are very useful trees. Their bark has so much volatile oil in it that it will ignite even when wet (white or paper birches, Betula papyrifera, are the best for this). Birch branches makes excellent brooms; New England native peoples made canoes from its waterproof bark; and the black or sweet birch (Betula lenta) is the preferred tree for making birch beer. In the British Isles, the bark was also used in cradles, while the branches were used to flog criminals.
When I was younger, I thought of birch as the ubiquitous “yule log” (read: Girl-Scout-craft-gone-horribly-wrong) that graced our dining room table in December. It had one cockeyed hole drilled in it for a single listing “evergreen” (read: PineSol) scented candle, and was wrapped in sagging silk poinsettia and wired pine boughs that threatened to catch fire and immolate the table cloth. I hated that log.
As I got a bit older, my distaste for birch faded, until it was an expression of teenage ennui, “Oh look, another birch,” followed by an eye roll. It wasn’t until I moved to Massachusetts in my mid-twenties that I really began to have an appreciation for this sturdy and useful tree. It started when I was doing research on Nerthus (1), whose shrine resided on an island in the middle of the ocean. None were allowed to see the face of her idol, and those slaves who cared for it were drowned in the lake at the center of the island when their duties were done (Tacitus, Germania, Ch. 40). I my mind’s eye, I could see the smooth lake, surrounded by birch trees. Their roots grew around and through the bodies of the sacrificed, sheltering the souls of the dead in their branches. This image stuck with me, and suddenly I began noticing birches everywhere, but especially where they grew on the edges of swamps and lakes. The quality of the land in these liminal areas is undeniably hungry, and my relationship with the birch went from one of bored disinterest to one of holy awe.
On the Celtic side of things, the birch is somewhat less scary, but no less sacred. The first ogham message, said to have been written by Ogma, was inscribed on a birch rod (Hopman 2008, 17). It is a tree of new beginnings, both esoterically and ecologically. Keeping with this theme, Graves’ imaginative Celtic Tree Calendar has birch as the tree of the first lunar month, starting in November. Personally, I associate birch more with February and the celebration of Imbolc, sacred to Brigid (another deity who can be strongly linked to this tree). I also happen to agree with Cunningham’s correspondences of Water and Venus for the birch, but as noted above, I definitely associate her more with Nerthus or the Holy Earth than with Thor (2003, 56).
To end this post, I’ll leave you with one of my happiest memories of the birch. At the first OBOD East Coast Gathering back in 2010, we were blessed to have autumn arrive in the middle of our Alban Elued retreat. Literally overnight, the birch forest that surrounded the fire pit had turned from green to yellow-gold. As the wind sighed through the branches, showers of leaves would rain down upon the assembled bards, ovates, and druids. It was such a wonderful moment of connection because I knew that the folk with whom I sat all sat with the same wonder as I did, held in the arms of the forest and witnessing the slip from summer into fall.
(1) It should be noted that most Heathens will associate the birch with Frigga. This does not ring untrue, but the connection between birch and Nerthus is much stronger for me.