When I moved to Maine from New Orleans 15 years ago, I was delighted to discover how many birch trees were on the property where I lived with my new partner. Previously I had had little contact with these beautiful white trees, other than in pictures and stories. The name always evoked images of birch bark canoes and messages to fate scrawled with bits of burnt wood.
Face to face, birch trees were as marvelous as I had imagined. I loved their shape against the blue sky, their beautiful white bark, the graceful way they swayed in the wind, the delicate tracery of their branches in mid-winter. Once I even saw a pair of mating dragon flies clinging to a branch, using their delicate wings to maintain harmony with the movement of the gentle breeze.
As a Wiccan, Mother Earth is my sacred text. Much of what I know and understand about the world comes from my relationship with trees and other growing things, rivers and oceans, mountains and valleys. I knew Birch would be a Teacher. I felt a special affinity with a particular white birch that was located in the field along the path I used when performing the sacred dance the Earth spirits here taught me.
My first winter in Maine, I was amazed at the bendiness of my birch tree. How the weight of heavy wet snow temporarily changed her outline—branches bending to earth—tips normally 15 feet over my head now buried on the earth in the snow! And how gracefully she rebounded
once the snow melted. To me all of this was a miracle—a metaphor for my own life as I attempted to gracefully craft a new life out of the traumas of my old one. Two years earlier a four-month period of time encompassed the deaths of both my parents and my beloved first husband as well as Hurricane Katrina. Still in mourning and suffering from PTSD, Birch showed me a path to healing.
Thus, you can imagine my horror when, during my fourth winter in Maine, the central trunk of my birch tree cracked a couple feet above the ground and fell to earth. I was devastated. But I took comfort in the presence of two remaining trunks, and that summer, when my partner and I were married, the severed trunk lent a special joy to the celebration, thanks to an unexpected gift from dear friends.
The two remaining trunks did well—growing bigger and putting out new branches and suckers. I learned that the gifts of the birch were not limited to beauty and grace—she also taught the lessons of resilience. It was possible to experience major loss and recover and go on to become a creative individual again. If the birch tree could do it, so could I.
Fast forward to the winter of 2016—multiple heavy wet snows over a brief period of time drowned my poor tree. Both remaining trunks—tall and sturdy—cracked and fell, pulling the root crown half-way out of the earth. I knew the tree was dead. Every time I looked out the bedroom windows, my eyes were inexorably drawn to the void in the tree line that my Birch friend used to fill. And each time my heart broke open a little more.
After snow melt, we could see the trunks and branches stretched out across the ground—white against the brilliant spring green—like the mystical corpses of otherworldly guides. Kind friends came by to remove the broken branches and cut the trunks into firewood sized pieces. We filled a young friend’s hatchback car to the roof with wood and she used it to heat her yurt the following winter. I did my best to shove the root crown back into the earth and prayed, but without much hope.
The following summer, I noticed multiple suckers emerging from the roots–so many I lost count. I waited another year and then chose 3 strong and tall suckers to keep and pruned the rest. Although she has a long way to go to regain her original height, she is still thriving—
reborn from a tree I thought dead.
Mother Earth’s teachings are often about death and rebirth. Here in Maine I have witnessed that miracle every year as the whole natural world seems to die each winter—indeed it becomes blanketed in white, like a shroud. And then, as the Wheel of the Year turns, the shroud slowly melts, and the world gradually becomes green and flowerful again. Each season has its beauty and its sadness. And nowhere have I ever seen a surrender to death as beautiful and complete as falling autumn leaves.
This past winter was relatively mild. Nevertheless, two of our other birch trees lost upper branches, as have other trees in our yard. But I no longer despair when I see these normal manifestations of winter. I know that spring will come and inevitably be followed by summer. The world turns green again, new growth obscures the rawness of the recently broken branches. Healing occurs and life goes on. The teachings of Birch revealed a path for the healing my own wounded soul and I have emerged from trauma with healthy new branches and leaves. By now, the lessons from Birch are engraved upon my soul. No doubt Mother Earth will send me a new teacher soon.
Mary F. Gelfand is an ordained Interfaith Minister and a Wiccan High Priestess. She holds a doctorate in education from Teachers College, Columbia University and is a gifted teacher and mentor. As a Unitarian Universalist, she has served in both local and national leadership roles, including five years as national board president of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS). She is an experienced teacher of Cakes for the Queen of Heaven—adult education program focused on feminist thealogy and the Great Goddess. Mary serves on the Leadership Council of the Abbey of Hope, an interfaith outreach community in Maine, where she regularly contributes to their weekly Reflectionary. A practicing Pagan, her spiritual life is rooted in the cycles and seasons of the natural world which are so abundantly visible in New England. She reads and teaches about feminist theology, the Great Goddess, mysticism, and the mysteries of Tarot. As a fiber artist, she enjoys weaving tapestry and knitting gifts for strangers and friends.