There’s a storm howling outside and the wind roars down the chimney as the flames lick the birch burning, the heat touching the cold in the room, hailstones dancing on the window.
Silver birch, Betula pendula, thrives here. So much heathland for it to colonise, and that burning in my hearth is locally grown and kiln-dried. A pioneer tree. A tree that can grow on acidic soils, fixing nitrogen in nodules in its roots, whose leaves help make alkaline the soil, making it more ready for the next successive species of slower growers to gain hold as the wind and birds deposit fresh seeds.
Pioneer and rejuvenator
A tree with over 60 varieties. Many begin life dark, almost purple, camouflaged against herbivore teeth. A tree that transforms the ground and itself, turning bone-white with age, black diamonds notched into its bark.
White, flaking bark, Betula papyrifera once used as paper and perfect kindling out on the hill. Once, used by Native Americans to make houses, covering a wooden frame, canoes and bowls. Its sap drunk.
In some cultures it is revered and seen as a ladder between heaven and earth. Silver birch with its purple glow of winter branches, or orange lustre in Scotland as its Downy Birch, Betula pubescens. Birch the pioneer, the rejuvenator, its spring leaves containing saponins to make a cleansing spring tea.
It is one of the most northern-occurring deciduous trees, its white bark reflecting sunlight and snow-glare to help maintain an even temperature. It is unlike other trees, as it shines bright in moon and sun, its bark white due to betulin, crystalline deposits in cells of the outer layers.
Traditionally the bark and sap were used to heal wounds, tuberculosis and stomach upsets, due to this betulin they contain. Now, it can be converted to betulinic acid which is said to have antifungal, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, sought after by the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.
Home for fungi
And even as dead wood standing, birch houses the fungi, Fomitopsis betulina, otherwise known as Razor Strop as it was used to clean the burr off newly sharpened knives, its surface is so tough.
The fungus was found on Ötzi the Iceman, the 5,300 year old mummy found in Tyrol, with suggestions he used it as a medicine, as the fruit body of the fungus contains agaric acid, poisonous to the parasitic whipworm, Trichuris trichura. The fungus may have been part of his medical kit. And we know that with Scots pine, birch is our oldest British native tree. After the Ice Age, it was the first to spread over the countryside.
Our relationship with birch is as old. Medicine, home, transport, food, worship. Part of that birch is in your white bones and dark red blood, as your ancestors turned to the tree for help, for sustenance, for support. To turn the soils, to burn, to make toys and bobbins, to admire in the moonlight as it sways gracefully, to die and still bear fruits.
Larvae and insects, moss and lichen
But two old birch I know couldn’t die standing, because they towered over a car park and their bases were the consistency of sponge cake. They spent much of the year with waterlogged roots, and the other half baking in drought.
These two old beauties were skilfully felled, two of the oldest the tree surgeon had seen, over 70 years old, maybe nearer 100. They would have been left standing, to be a home to larvae and insects, food for woodpeckers and tits, fungi, moss and lichen, if they had not towered over a rural car park.
Dominance or harmony?
Today, we have an uneasy relationship with ‘nature’. In the recent past we have been scared of it, cut it, used it, dominated it. Now we want to love it, embrace it, because we know, sense, somehow it’s really important to our survival.
But this relationship is filled with tension, not much respect, and a lot of control. Our approach is still one of mastery rather than equality where we still seek to dominate and sculpt the land for our pleasure, or pocket.
We are in a pickle; I love you, and need you but you will do/be/look like this. A demanding, ‘fulfil my needs’ based relationship. Does this sound familiar?
Nature. What the dickens is it?
Definition ‘Nature’ (Collins): “Nature is all the animals, plants, and other things in the world that are not made by people, and all the events and processes that are not caused by people.”
Nature: Uncountable noun, it cannot be counted.
Definition ‘Nature’ (Cambridge): “All the animals and plants in the world and all the features, forces, and processes that exist or happen independently of people, such as the weather, the sea, mountains, reproduction, and growth.”
It’s not us or by us, it is independent of us. So it’s not us, we are not it, and we did not create it.
How can all that be, even though we are made of exactly the same stuff, mostly carbon, hydrogen and oxygen? We think, believe, behave ‘them and us’, separate, outside, disconnected from. Them and us, where we have approached the non-human as inferior and definitely separate from us.
Jacob Bronowski, 20th-century mathematician and historian, said, “Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the animals, so that unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape, he is the shaper of the landscape.”
In his book Brilliant Green, Stefano Mancuso, plant neurobiologist, looks at our ingrained (Western) cultural prejudices and, most probably, lack of humilty. We have underestimated and not valued the plant world, the photo-synthesizers of the sun. Through his research he shows how plants process information, sleep, remember, and signal to one another. They are not passive but intelligent and aware, responding and reacting.
Mancuso challenges our idea of intelligence. “Intelligence is the ability to solve problems and plants are amazingly good in solving their problems.” We have five basic senses, but researchers have discovered that plants have at least 20 different senses used to monitor complex conditions in their environment, including measuring humidity, detecting gravity and sensing electromagnetic fields. Mancuso’s advice is: “Plants have much to teach us.”
Three brains within us
Avigail Abarbanel, author and relationship psychotherapist, looks toward neuroscience to discover how we relate. She reminds us we have ’3 brains’, the Triune model first discussed in the 1960s. It’s a simplified way of looking at the brain, but informs us about how we respond or react. These brains represent a timeline of evolution on this planet: reptilian brain, limbic or mammal brain, and the prefrontal cortex found at the font of the neocortex.
Each brain is designed to handle increasingly complex tasks. The limbic brain is 200 million years old and the prefrontal cortex is 2 million years old.
The limbic, mammal brain is interested in survival and in this, is fear-based. It reacts to threats in a flight, fight or freeze response and is interested in self and offspring, procreating and protecting them. It doesn’t care if you’re kind, nice or fulfilled. It feels and responds, operating in two modes; Safe or Unsafe. In Safe, it allows playing, resting, learning, creating and relating. In Unsafe it’s flight, fight or freeze. It is a system whose ancient language is the emotions.
The prefrontal cortex to rule us
The prefrontal cortex holds executive functions when it interprets data. It’s empathetic, regulates emotions, plans for the long term, makes clear decisions, holds a wider perspective than ‘me’, sees consequences to actions, and is intuitive. It’s our Dalai Lama onboard.
However, and it’s a big however, these two brains are not connected, and neuroscience has only started, in the last 20 years, to see how they operate.
Children, with their developing brains, need help integrating the limbic and prefrontal cortex, to become, emotionally and mentally, compassionate adults able to relate healthily. This is done by validating their emotions, this ancient ‘speech’, that it is OK to be angry, sad, disappointed, or upset.
The prefrontal cortex develops and ‘switches on’ about age 15 and is fully formed at 25. And, if as adults we do not have fully integrated limbic and prefrontal cortex (probably stemming from being told systematically as children to ‘get over it’, ‘don’t be a crybaby/drama queen’ etc), we remain reactionary and running on survival with the limbic brain being the predominate operating system. Phew, what another pickle, and mess in our relationships, to each other and the natural world, another living organism.
To change or to stay
The good news is, we can (in most cases) re-wire, as our brain can change its architecture, forming new neural pathways, to integrate the two. In a healthy, mature adult the prefrontal cortex should be in charge, so if we perceive a threat and need to make decisions, we do not immediately react, knee-jerk, but process the information, think of others, cooperate and make a decision with the long term in consideration.
If we take this information and consider the way we interact with nature, it’s a relationship after all, most of us are possibly making many decisions based on our survival and nothing else. Our view of nature and relationship with it is about us, only. It’s one way, what can I get from you to meet my needs. Full stop.
And, as well as not operating with our executive functions, of empathy and compassion, the wider perspective or long term in mind, we’ve also been told we’re ‘better than’ nature. Nature is dumb and green, not intelligent, like us (intelligent not green).
Wow, what a cocktail.
A world of together
If we go back to our Birch, our Betula, our pioneering survivor in the cold, damp places, even it isn’t alone or separated. We tend to think of a forest as individual trees. We feel separate, on survival, so they must be, right? It was Professor Suzanne Simard over 25 years ago who discovered that Birch has an underground relationship with Douglas Fir, conducting lively ‘two-way’ discussions, feeding each other sugars and carbon. She was chased by grizzly bears during the research.
When the Birch is leafless in winter, the Fir feeds it. When the Douglas Fir is shaded in summer, the Birch reciprocates. As she says, “Trees are not just competitors but cooperators. And I had found solid evidence of this massive belowground communications network, the other world.”
A world of roots and mycelium, a language of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, water, “a language of defence signals and chemicals and hormones – information.” A pre-internet network of information under our feet we are completely ignorant of, blindly cutting that which doesn’t suit our needs, gardens, parks, lifestyles, our perceived survival.
The example of the trees
We have the intelligence of nature, known, understood, valued and respected by indigenous people, and most possibly our ancestors; scientific breakthroughs deconstructing our (Western) cultural belief systems (or are they?) and today’s climate reality, where we need to cooperate with nature as the Birch and Douglas Fir cooperate.
As a horticulturalist and habitat creator, I wonder what I can do and seek to work alongside nature. And even this falls so short, and reminds me of Darwin when he spoke of earthworms: “Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose”. He studied worms for 40 years.
The Latin word humus means earth or ground, and has the same root as humility and human. We are, after all, in the end, matter returning to the earth, feeding those worms, and feeding back in those elemental compounds in the cycle of life, and death. But us humans, while alive, forever striving and trying, intervening or interfering.
A friend recently said he decided to ‘do good’, do ‘his bit’ and planted a 100 ‘whips’ or young trees. After a couple of days he visited his ‘do-gooding’ and the tops had been sliced off. Turns out the hares who lived in that field did not like their view interrupted, they hide in long grass and like to survey the landscape. The initial human response? Anger, outrage, how very dare they!
I try to do my bit, enter into an active relationship by tending and creating wild meadows, orchards, bog gardens, and rock crevices for ledge plants. I leave dead wood piles and seed heads standing. I thank the moles and remove the earth they bring to the surface. And as I seek to assist, the wildlife responds.
Gardens are abundant with insects and mammals; deer, red squirrels, voles, moles, and hares, who chew and dig. The vole population has exploded and ring barked the apple trees, but a weasel was recently spotted playing hide and seek through a drain pipe, and we’re in the process of making barn owl boxes.
But the deer have serrated the roses and the hare have grazed the gooseberry bark. Next step, make an edible hedge for the deer and hare.
But I have an uneasy, intuitive, feeling. I am still ‘managing’ complex systems I really do not fully comprehend, controlling an outcome to make myself feel better, because I haven’t been raised in a culture to be, think, relate to as ‘I am part of’. I am feeling the Latin root HUM for HUMility in my HUManness.
Maybe, our brains don’t even work in isolation. What if they are intricately connected to the vast system of nature, and in a few decades neuroscience will uncover these ‘invisible’ complex processes, like the labyrinth of connections in the soil, under our feet?
Indeed Albert Einstein said: “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Nature’s own course
Maybe, we’d be better off interfering less, for nature seeks to find a balance, to heal and restore health. Mary Reynolds was the youngest person, and woman, to win a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2002. After many award-winning projects creating ‘wild gardens’, one at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, she now wants to leave well alone and let the brambles grow, saying ‘they are nature’s barbed wire’ to keep us out from meddling.
There are storms outside, and storms inside us. There is a lot of love too, if love is connection, awareness and ‘other than me’. Just what is connected, who to and how?
We need to pay attention to these storms, to the way we interact, the way we are, with the very nature of Nature, somehow remembering our roots of connections.
We are of the same fabric, born out of the explosion of stars, woven with the same elements that creates majesty and beauty present all around in the silent wing of an owl or the snow falling softly tonight. In the bone white bark of the birch.
Can we re-wire our brains to remember and respect our origins? Richard Rohr, a writer and Franciscan friar said: “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”
Can we (re-) learn about relating in a deeply complex way, one based on connection, intelligence and awareness?
Maybe we can change (one small leap for each man, one giant leap for mankind) and learn about relating with compassion, care and respect, transforming our mentality to begin making decisions that are not fear-based.
Transforming like the birch tree powerfully transforms, generously existing as part of a web of relationships, in life, and death.