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Birch Slap

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In the northern part of our beautiful state (Maine), there is a long stand of white birch that I’ve enjoyed looking at for more than 20 years now. Amazingly, every time I pass by it, it still causes me to wonder.

Over the years, I’ve come to see birch trees as white accents against a predominately brown and green landscape of pines, oaks and maples. They seem to appear sometimes randomly as solitary beacons of contrast in the forest. An anomaly or odd duck if you will.

Setting my mind to wander down this path, I thought that maybe their location could mean something more. Maybe birches are some kind of ancient natural unite of measurement?

I think that in this way, birches could have acted as the first road signs long ago. Can’t you just picture an early settler or Native American giving directions like – “turn left at the big stream and follow the trail for 12 birches, then walk towards the setting sun.” In a sea of green, the white birch stands apart from all others.

Or, are birches outcasts?  They often “stick out like a sore thumb” after all.  Worse, do they think themselves superior to all other trees because of their white bark? Are birches snobs? For a while, I thought that this was the case. Until I stumbled across, rather, I drove past, that large group of beautiful birch trees up north. That’s right, I drove past them, probably at about 75mph…don’t worry, that’s the speed limit up there now.

You see, after the hundreds of miles of walking, hiking and mountain biking I’ve done over the years, I’ve never seen a more perfect stand of birches than the one at mile marker 213 of Route 95, somewhere between Bangor and Millinocket.

Rather than a rest area for food, drink or gas, I now anxiously await this area as a rest for my eyes. After miles and miles of watching the same mix of green pass by, the abrupt change to white (whether it’s day or night) helps to break me out of the daze I inevitably find myself in at that part of the journey. “Wake up!” it seems to yell to me. “You’re almost there!” Thank God.

It doesn’t move, grow or shrink at any perceptible degree since I’ve been traveling up there. But I’m sure that it has changed over the years. At some point, I’d really like to spend some time there – just 15 or 20 minutes of walking through the heart of the stand from end to end so that I could see what they see. At least something more than the five or six seconds it takes to drive by it.

Maybe I’m not the only rubbernecking motorist that whizzes by on their way to “somewhere else” wondering, for a few seconds at least, how this group of trees came to be. Were they planted there on purpose? If so, when and why? Did the tree planter just get lazy and drop all the seedlings in one place and call it a day?

Or, if it happened naturally, why did only birches end up thriving here?

I’ve driven almost every mile of Route 95 from Florida to Houlton and I’ve never seen a larger, more defined section of birch trees. Maybe these are some type of “Super Birch” trees that are more powerful, more potent, more “something” than their brothers and sisters who are content to coexist and quietly mingle in with the pines, oaks and maples?

This tiny parcel of land, with its pronounced contrast in landscape colors, is comforting to people like me who take the time to think about such things. But I wonder if the birches themselves look longingly to the other side of the highway where green pines slowly wave back and forth with the passing of every Midland, Schneider or WalMart truck?

At first, I thought that perhaps this oasis of birches amidst a forest of green chaos would be a kind of birch utopia. An insular place where every tree was treated as an equal and was provided with the same opportunities.  You know, a place “where everybody knows your name…and they’re always glad you came,” as the song goes.

There is no doubt that there is some comfort in being in such a place. You know that someone will always have your back. The odds of something bad happening to any single tree are lower by definition and you immediately feel more confident in yourself, because everyone around you is just like you. That is until something bad actually does come along.

Suddenly, now, because everyone is exactly the same, everyone is at risk.

I’ve heard stories of some disease wiping out most of chestnut trees in North America in the first half of the 20th Century. The huge trees once ruled the forests from Maine to Florida, but in less than 50 years they were almost completely wiped out.

If something like that was to occur with birches, this stand wouldn’t stand a chance as the disease would quickly pass from branch to branch, tree to tree. Within a matter of days, depending on how the wind blew, the entire population would be infected and die. Ironically, the only likely survivors in this scenario would be those birches living amongst the other types of trees.

Yes, those who dared to live on their own, the risk takers, the ones who chose to break from the pack and coexist with other trees, no matter the size of their trunks or color of their bark, are the ones who survive. Perhaps, instead of relying on the adage that there are “strength in numbers” we should instead come to see that “strength lies in diversity”?

I’ll still look forward to seeing that wonderful stand of white birch trees on our trips up north, and for that day I can actually stop in and walk around. Maybe then I’ll understand better?

But now my appreciation will also be coupled with sadness as I realize how oblivious they (and many of us) are to the dangers of surrounding yourself with yourself.

What do you think?

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