Edgelands, not the ones where concrete and vegetation intersect, but the ones where culture and nature face each other in the mirror. A major thread in Tom Jeffrey’s new book, The White Birch is this tree, or as the reader will discover the multiplicity of trees, and its protean ability to signify so many different things, whether it be in film, literature, painting or nature to the people of Russia. The White Birch is a tree that has been taken to symbolise an immense range of things which more than verge on the contradictory, from national purity and romantic promise, endurance and evanescence, the wild and the horticultural, through to the peasantry and the aristocracy, and far more.
I hadn’t thought about the ephemeral nature of birch trees before reading The White Birch and I was surprised to discover a specimen in Sweden that has been calculated to be over 250 years old, they are usually as short-lived as humans. They are a pioneer species that moves onto poor soils and into unpropitious climate zones. There they grow quickly and improve the chemistry of the soil so that their withering allows their successors to prosper. Jeffreys doesn’t allow the comparison with humans, including the destructive differences, to escape the reader.
The White Birch contains many fascinating vignettes about Russian, which is unsurprising as the White Birch is the country’s unofficial national emblem but also explores the art and prominent writers, their homes, the country’s tragic but fascinating history, science and conservation, and a few swipes at some modern contemporary cultural icons. Although its focus is the white birch and Russia it insistently steers the reader towards the universal quandaries that face all of us, whatever our context.
The sharpest sting, for me, in this fascinating book comes when Jeffreys reflects on the Russian word neumestyni used by the philosopher Vladimir Bibikhin to describe human beings. The word means the out of place, the uncanny or the unsuitable. Humans are the part of nature without roots like the birch, who are at odds with the world they inhabit and make it increasingly unsuitable for life.
The White Birch was a welcome surprise of a book, not just exploring nature but also this vast and complex country that so few of us in the west only glimpse from the outside, and a must for anyone with an interest in Russian history.
- The White Birch by Tom Jeffreys is published by Corsair Books (£16.99). To order a copy go to www.littlebrown.co.uk
Ian Tattum is a priest in the Church of England who writes occasional pieces about the people who shaped the history of science and human and animal travel-real and fictional.