by Kendyll Hazzard
Recently I found myself along the side of a road, learning about Betula papyrifera, the paper birch, as a part of my Field Botany course. I realized I had seen this tree many times before and had spent many days considering the thin, flaky bark of this tree as a part of my juvenile scientific curiosities. Coming face to face with this childhood friend during class quickly set my mind wandering towards simpler times living in rural Wisconsin.
Picture this: a small A-frame cottage on the Rock river with two large birch trees scattering yellow leaves over the front lawn. A quad of small children is playing “tag, you’re it” and running in circles around the trees, which have lost most of their papery bark. Some of this loss was through natural wear and tear, but mostly it was at the hands of curious seven year olds who wanted to know if they could “unwind” these mysterious birch trees. The youngsters had been told not to hurt the poor tree, but as kids will always be kids, this warning was unheeded. They would take turns peeling off strips of chalky white bark, competing to see who could pull off the longest, thinnest strip without it breaking or tearing, and left the scraps in messy piles around the base of the trees for an exasperated grandfather to clean up later.
Fast forward a decade or so, and those two birch trees are still standing tall, despite five years and four children’s worth of torment. Everything else had been cleared out and thrown away: the rose bush I once tumbled backwards into during a misguided attempt to learn to ride a bike (which I still don’t know how to do), the pine trees that once stood like guards, blocking my siblings and I from trespassing onto the neighbor’s front yard, the two bushes that outlined the path from the driveway to the front door, and the small cherry and plum trees that my grandmother loved so much.
I went back home to visit recently, and my jaw almost dropped when I realized just how much had changed in the years I had been absent. But my siblings and I had changed as well. Over time our rowdy gang - the four musketeers - grew up.
We moved away, branched out, and put down roots in new and exciting places. Still, no matter how far from home I am, and how much I miss those years of playing in the light shade of the birch trees, it’s comforting to know that those poor trees that the four of us hassled and harassed against our grandpa’s wishes were still surviving, still thriving. And maybe that’s a sign that those four musketeers will survive and thrive as well.
Kendyll Hazzard is a Biology major at Bucknell University and a participant in the Chris Martine's Field Botany class. The students took some time to write up their Plant Love Stories as a reflection of the class. We will be sharing some of their stories in the coming weeks.
Photo credit: Paper birch by Sue Sweeney from wikimedia commons.