Nature Notes

Birch Bark Scroll.

You could be forgiven for overlooking the badger sett on the common. It is well used, but dug into sandy, gravelly heathland, the earth spoil is not as obvious as the great chalk-and-flint heavings of the higher ground.

The long white stump of a dead birch tree guards the entrance. Twice my height, it stands like a pale pilaster, a Doric column to a door long gone, holed where the birds and the insects and the rot has got in, and where old branches have fallen off.

It stands, white as a ghost in the dark wood, its bark, like satin, shines. It is beautifully marked with short, black, horizontal lines like pencil marks, and diamond-shaped splits that look like eyes. In Canada, in the Saskatchewan Prairie birch forests, these are known as ‘the watchful trees’.

At the top of the half-trunk is half a large rotten hole, that two years ago, housed a woodpecker nest. I tap the tree and the whole thing sways, its rotted off roots making a sucking noise, the thin bark like wallpaper over blown plaster, yet it resists the push of my finger and the elements still, even though the tree inside has rotted to an almost sodden nothing. This is the waterproof flexibility the tree bark is famed for; paper thin bark that could be written on, sewn up, woven into baskets, a birch bark canoe or used to wrap babies in a papoose stitched with sweetgrass and thin, deerskin laces and lined with rabbit fur.

The tree doesn’t fall, because it is pegged with the taught lines and twisted yarns of honeysuckle vine, like a maypole. In places the bark peels away in elaborately curled scrolls for writing on. There are smaller curls, too, like ringlets or cherry bark, white and damson-coloured on their insides, springing back on themselves to curl protectively around some overwintering insect. When I peel the bark back on its north facing side, the wood underneath is smooth, hard and bone-like, but on the unsheltered side, it is dry and crumbly, like sawdust, or the friable soil it is already turning into.

But best of all, staggered up its height like stairs are the four stepped hooves of a horse’s hoof fungus, black and ridged, as if a rearing horse were trapped inside it.

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