An Agate Original
Rambling through one of Duluth’s wild stream gorges, Duluth poet Sheila Packa muses on natural history, Finnish culture, and forest mysteries.
Every day I walk along the upper Chester Park trail through the woods behind the ski slope. I take my dog. The crowns of ash, aspen and cedars shade the path, and roots rise from the soil to give me more of a foothold. Moss grows alongside the edges here, and in spring large fields of lily of the valley bloom in the understory. This is a cross-country ski trail in winter, but in summer the trail offers a retreat from the traffic of the city. Deer live on this hill. It’s not uncommon to see spotted fawns and red foxes. Squirrels run along branches overhead.
Along this trail, vistas reveal the blue expanse of the Lake Superior, the long narrow sandbar called Park Point, and the ships and freighters in the harbor. The forest here is changing rapidly. Twenty years ago, birch trees grew. Some have said acid rain killed them, but there are many factors.
The North Shore Forest Collaborative has a mission to restore Lake Superior’s coastal forest, and the organization has studied the demise of these trees. Paper birch trees (Betula papyrifera) are not trees with long life spans, about 60 to 70 years. The trees have shallow roots, and they easily come down in windstorms. These shallow roots are damaged even by foot traffic. Conditions have been made worse by climate change, drought and higher temperatures. In Minnesota, there have been fewer forest fires but more insect infestations and storms with straight line winds. Other trees are diminishing too, because the growing deer population feeds on saplings.
Birch trees are iconic in Minnesota and northern climates. My grandparents, all immigrants from Finland, grew up in their old country surrounded by birches. In old Finnish culture, the birch tree was sacred. In the epic poem the Kalevala, the birch tree was mentioned several times, and the poem’s hero, Vainamoinen, used birch wood to make the musical instrument called the kantele after the first kantele (made of the jaw bone of a pike and the strands of a woman’s hair) was lost.
wise and ancient,
Made himself an axe for chopping,
Then began to clear the forest,
Then began the trees to level,
Felled the trees of all descriptions,
Only left the birch-tree standing
For the birds a place of resting,
Where might sing the sweet-voiced cuckoo,
Sacred bird in sacred branches.
People worshipped the tree’s spirit. They left gifts and wrote spells on its bark and hung Aeolian harps in its branches, where the wind would stroke the strings. The birch was mentioned in charms, prayers and chants.
Birches had, and still have, many practical uses. The twigs can be used for whisks and brooms. Finnish people bundle a small batch of birch twigs (with leaves still attached) into a vihta (Western Finland) or vasta (eastern Finland) for the sauna. These fragrant switches in the steam room are used to slap one’s back to raise the sweat. In America, native cultures also create beautiful birch bark containers and cradleboards from birch bark. The bark is malleable and strong. It can be used to make canoes, baskets, and other useful items. When dried, the wood is also used for firewood, burning quickly but cleanly
Birch trees can also be tapped in the same way as sugar maples, and the syrup is unique in its flavor. Birch sap is believed to have medicinal qualities. It has been used externally to treat skin rashes and acne, and internally for everything from curing hiccups, to preventing migraines, to maintaining healthy kidneys. Xylitol, a sugar alcohol derived from birch trees, is used to prevent cavities and strengthen the teeth.
I am sorry to see these trees disappear. Along my walk, I cross two rusted iron and timber footbridges over Chester Creek. These are new bridges, replacements of the ones that were washed aside by the flood of 2012. I remember that day and how the creek suddenly boiled with a fury that took down old trees and scraped the banks of the creek all the way down to Lake Superior. Some streets washed away. A house nearby lost its footings and had to be demolished. People came out to gaze, speechless, at the changes.
Since, city crews have planted new seedlings of scotch pine, maple and oak, but not white pine or birch which will not survive in the forest succession. I follow the trail around the rim of Chester Bowl, and then I go through the soccer field. We stop by the creek, and my dog swims for a moment and then steps out to shake water from her fur. On the rough-hewn log, I balance and cross the creek while the dog runs through the stream bed. We go up the ski slope. Last year, in September, I encountered a bear on this path. It stood and stared for a moment and then disappeared. The dog didn’t bark at all.
One can still find an occasional living birch tree in the forest. Often, one can also see that somebody has torn a piece of its bark, leaving a bare spot that rims the trunk, which will make it more vulnerable to insects.
When the trees fall to the ground, they rot from the inside out, leaving hollow sleeves of white birch bark on the ground. The softened and collapsed white bark looks like a garment cast off by the body and spirit. When I find a sleeve of birch bark on the ground, I take it home. They are like ancient scrolls. On a birch twig, which is brown, one will see tiny light marks. When the trees grow and the bark turns white, the tiny marks turn black like ink marks. It speaks to me as if the world has written in another language. It waits to be revealed.
Sheila Packa is a poet, writer, and teacher with Minnesota and Finnish roots. Her poems have been published in several literary magazines and anthologies, and she has four books of poems, The Mother Tongue, Echo & Lightning, Cloud Birds, and Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range. She was Duluth’s Poet Laureate in 2010-2012, and she teaches workshops in the community.