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Here a Birch Tree, There a Mountain Ash

By Luba Markovskaia

Over the past decade, I’ve become increasingly enthralled with the plant world. In my early twenties, gently egged on by my then-partner who was an avid botanist with a biology degree, I learned to recognize most trees and many understory forest plants found in Quebec and eastern Canada. My partner taught me to carry field guides when I go on a hike (though I still leave them at home too often, and consistently regret it).

That is how I learned to look closely at my surroundings and to notice the subtle differences that make any environment richer and turn any walk—in nature or in the city streets—into “a field trip, a series of happy recognitions,” as Annie Dillard so beautifully put it.

My naturalistic impulses are heightened during this period of uncertainty and self-isolation, though they are mostly restrained to my backyard, at least in the material world.

On social media, in an effort to “cleanse my timeline” from constant anxiety-inducing reports and statistics, I began following other passionate botanists, finding kindred spirits in these joyful and generous wells of knowledge. As I scroll past a video of the US president’s latest meltdown, a tutorial for a homemade mask, and a graph showing a decidedly unflattened curve (as I write this, my city, Montreal, is the Canadian epicentre of the pandemic, with no signs of letting up), the sight of the delicately sloped bud of a nascent trillium flower helps me breathe deeper.

Normally during this time of year, I would be strolling across the woods of Mount Royal—the hilly park that we Montrealers proudly call ‘The Mountain’—and marveling at the trillium carpeting the forest floor in a glimmering expanse of white. Though it is now best to avoid such crowded spaces, I am heartened still by these momentous digital dispatches from the plant world. My mother has also taken to sending me pictures of blooms she encounters on her walks around the leafy neighbourhood where I spent part of my childhood and adolescence, after we moved away from our Russian-Jewish enclave in the largely immigrant part of town where we first settled. She regales me with photos of magnolias, rhododendrons, and Siberian squill. One morning, she sent me a flowering birch tree along with a lyrical poem about spring awakenings by Sergey Yesenin.

It occurred to me then that the seeds of my passion for plants and trees, along with my love of literature and poetry, were planted in me earlier than I tend to think.

I was five years old when we emigrated from St. Petersburg to Montreal, a mere two years after the fall of the Soviet Union. My mother embarked on a new career, learning a programming language along with the two official languages (French and English) of our new country. A generous Polish colleague of hers lent us a small cottage in Rawdon in the summer. Rawdon is an unremarkable rural town, similar to most French-Canadian areas in the region, save for the fact that it carries traces of Eastern Europe—an Orthodox church and cemetery—as many Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian nobles settled in its countryside after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

In Rawdon, my summers were structured by my grandmother’s strict daily programme, reminiscent of Soviet pioneer camps: warm-up exercises in the morning, Russian grammar and history classes before lunch followed by a swim in the lake, an afternoon stroll during which we recited verses by Pushkin or Lermontov, and a Soviet film in the evening.

As we walked on the side of the road along dense pine groves, we would encounter numerous red “Private” signs nailed to the trunks of trees. “Privaht! Privaht!” my Communist babulya would throw up her arms. "How can the forest be Privaht!?"

My mother, my sister, my nephew, and I still head to Rawdon every year. While my family flocks to the crowded beach overrun with barbecuing Russians in the summer (which I tend to avoid), I gladly join their mushroom-picking visits in the fall. If all the best varieties are gone by the time we arrive, we sigh with a mix of resignation and reverence for the Polish mushroom-foragers that presumably got there before us. Mushroom-picking is relatively rare among most Quebeckers, who feel the activity is surrounded by a deadly aura. So, mushroom picking in Rawdon is still very much the purview of more recent immigrants from Eastern Europe like us. I follow my mother down forest paths as she expertly spots edible varieties and, when in doubt, tastes a tiny nibble to check for bitter taste. Somewhere between North American caution and Russian brazenness, I trust her instincts, but would rather carry a field guide—and triple check my findings online—when left to my own devices.

I sometimes think how lucky it is that my nature-loving mother and grandmother emigrated to a faraway country with such a similar climate to their homeland. While they struggled to navigate new languages and conventions, they were almost immediately at home in this natural environment, with its rough winters and familiar flora. We used to sing a patriotic tune from the Soviet era called “Our Land” on our countryside walks with my late babulya. The lyrics translate to something like

Here a birch tree, there a mountain ash /

a willow branch above the river /

my ever-beloved homeland /

Where can one find another such place?”

I’m glad to know that, though my uprooted mother may still struggle at times to adapt to the particulars of the foreign soil, she can look up and see a birch tree or a mountain ash, remember a few lines of poetry, and feel at home.


Luba is a freelance translator and editor living and working in Montreal. She holds a Ph.D. in French literature and occasionally publishes essays, book reviews, and literary translations. You can follow Luba on twitter @luba_mark


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