Lessons From Birch & Mother Earth—Grace, Resilience, and Rebirth by Mary Gelfand


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

Birch & Heart photo by Michael Eric Berube

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—

photo by author

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.



Categories: Eco-systems, Ecofeminism, Feminism and Religion, Grief, Healing, Nature, Women's Spirituality

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

16 replies

  1. Mary, I smile when I read how your tree came back to life, or really was still alive though it looked dead; and how it was so much metaphor for your own life, how you identified with it’s journey. I know this experience of identifying with certain plants in my backyard when I thought my life was over: how amazed I was to see new buds emerge on branches that seemed dead. And a plant that had been spindly and unwell looking at the start of my trauma, grew huge and strong over the years of my healing and creative emergence. It seems as you say that when we sit on Her lap, listen to Her and converse with Her, She will teach.
    Best wishes to you

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Glenys. I appreciate your comment about how the Birch really was alive although it looked dead. I think there may be parts of our whole selves that look dead but are really alive and awaiting the right circumstances to show themselves–just as random plants crop up in the yard, seemingly out of no where. I’m always happy to meet others who sit in Her lap.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So beautiful, Mary. It is a gift to see the teachings in Nature and to share in Her cycles of life & death & rebirth. And then it is a gift for you to write and share your experiences with us.

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  3. Beautiful! What a lovely evocation of the determination of life to emerge! I’m always amazed at where I find plants growing in my own garden, even in the most inhospitable of places. It always gives me courage to have the same persistence and keep going! And there truly is something magical about birches!

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    • Thank you Carolyn. When I returned to my house in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I discovered a squash plant growing beside the deck. I did not garden and don’t really like to eat summer squash. But there it was–the only green thing in the landscape. And it was a real source of healing for me as well. Mother Nature knows her stuff!

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  4. Beautiful Mary. Thank you.

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  5. Hello Mary Gelfand!! So nice to reconnect with you! I wondered where you disappeared to, when you were no longer in New Orleans. What a wonderful place to move to — Maine! It’s really crazy that I have never visited there, since I grew up in Upstate NY. But then my family never traveled much at all. But every person I’ve met who lived in Maine has been lovely: community-oriented, friendly, compassionate. I think you must be fitting in very easily.

    I’m so sorry to hear about your multiple losses all at the same time. That must have been incredibly traumatic. And I’m glad to hear about your healing, a rebirth like that of your birch. For me, birch has always been about new beginnings, and your story resonates with that understanding. Welcome to FAR. I hope we hear more from you here. Love, Nancy

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    • Dear Nancy–How lovely to encounter you here at FAR. I think of you and wonder how you are faring every time I listen to Chants for the Queen of Heaven. Some of those songs are on all my ‘spiritual’ playlists.

      I am loving Maine–especially the solitude I’m able to find here after the chaos of living in a city with noisy neighbors a few yards away and a bar around the corner. And I like the connection to the Wheel of the Year–the ever changing view from my windows. I am hoping to contribute here again.
      Love,
      Mary

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  6. As a tree lover who also lives in Maine I am aware that our birches are suffering trauma from “freeze thaw” like never before. Almost everyone’s property has permanently bent or broken birch trees. The amazing thing is that birch and poplar as well as willow and alder have relationships below the surface and each of these trees has roots that will begin to sprout after upheaval… trees never die… they are always transforming – I am not a Wiccan but consider trees to be my most important teachers. I am delighted to read that you do too!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Sara. I’ve read and enjoyed various of your posts on FAR as well and noted that you live in Maine. Trees have always been important in my life. I grew up in central Florida and spent a good bit of my childhood tucked away in a grapefruit tree where my mother couldn’t see me, reading. I had special places in 2 or 3 different trees. I love forests.

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  7. Hi Mary, I too live in Maine. I moved here 25 years ago from California with my husband. I found nature very healing, too, when he died, and nature still heals and teaches me. I’m so glad you moved to Maine and that you found healing after your horrific losses. Thanks for this wonderful essay about your birch tree. I love birches, too!

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  8. Thank you Linda. I am sorry for your loss as well. Nice to meet another non-native Mainer. It is quite a special place in my opinion.

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  9. Beautiful post. I could feel the lesson of the Birch shining out from you – really. I think there is something that truly delights when we really get(grok) one of nature’s tenets and integrate that knowledge into blood and bone. Thank you.

    Birch is one the sacred Irish trees associated with Ogham – the original Celtic writing. This poem is from my book “Sitting on the Hag Seat”:

    Beith – Birch – Ogham Letter B

    Night forest reflects the moon
    in intermittent silver streaks,
    slender threads of argent
    woven through dark tapestry,
    each filament a guardian birch.

    Tree nurse, soil minder,
    Lady of the Woods,
    She-Who-Comes-Before,
    repairs deleted soil, venturing
    into barren places ravaged
    and laid bare by flame.

    First tree to follow after ice,
    mammoths nibbled her limbs,
    aurochs sheltered in their shade.

    Her branches drive out evil
    sweep away the dust.
    Her leaves heal, her sap sweetens,
    her wood burns bright against the cold.

    She is the beginning place,
    herald of the New Year
    reviving, replenishing, restoring
    and Beith is her beautiful name.

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