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Sep 25 2013

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On mountain ash and other miracles.

20130916_132229My heart goes pitter-patter when the shuttle leaves Minneapolis and I catch the first glimpses of Minnesota birches. Then one after another birch groves begin to pass by and patches of tall, straight pines crowned at the top. Mixed foliage of maples, aspen, and ash, linden trees… This is the North, and I recognize the delicacy of the sky — thinner, more transparent, and lighter, almost vulnerable, as if it could be picked up and carried right off by a careless gust of the wind.

I grew up in the North, though half the world away. This is the North, and coming here, I feel I am coming home.

I have just spent two weeks at the St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, on the shore of Lake Superior. For two weeks, my life flowed with the rhythm of the Liturgy of the Hours and sang with the voices of Benedictine Sisters chanting the psalms. For two weeks, I worked in the quiet of the college library, greeted the sunrise from the roof of the monastery, shared food and conversation, and walked beside the stations of the cross that stand patiently around the cemetery where St. Scholastica’s Sisters have rested since the inception of the monastery.

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I have measured with my feet, at the tolling of the bell, its cloister walk and chapel, three times a day, and heard the echo of my steps and whispers soak softy into the aging walls.

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I communed with creatures savoring the last, precious rays of the autumn sun.

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There is an ineffable delicacy, a fragility in the short-lived summer of the Northern lands. It is soft, tender, and comes in sizes petite and hues of subtle shades. It does not defend itself, does not swell in an overwhelming tsunami of life but comes in a bashful joy of a fleeting spring and passes with a quiet glory of autumn: fiery colors and the fullness of berries mixed with the rain and fatigue. Northern summer lives and dies like a peasant woman, like a mother of many, or like a nun: her beauty apparent only if you come close, into her embrace, but then — breathtaking.

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A tree grows in Northern Minnesota, all over Northern Minnesota — a tree they call “mountain ash.” It grows only in the North. It grows in my homeland, all over Leningrad and Northern and Middle Russia, and it doesn’t grow anywhere else in the United States where I’ve looked: not in the South or the mid-Atlantic, not in California or Kansas or Ohio, not in New England. The berries of mountain ash grow into heavy, bright-orange clusters in the fall and stay. Long after all the leaves have fallen and thick comforters of snow have covered the earth, bright-orange clusters hang juicy on their branches, screaming color breaking up the pristine white, bitter-sweet and fermenting through the winter months. Russians make preserves with them and infusions, and everywhere in the Northern world birds save their lives eating mountain ash when all other food is hidden and gone. Evey Northerner knows that birds peck at the mountain ash berries and get drunk and begin to fly in mad, unthinkable figures and crash into trees and windows. Sometimes, birds pay with their lives for the joy of mountain ash.

20130916_145638“A heavy winter must be coming,” my friends from Duluth were saying to me this time. “Branches are just breaking with mountain ash berries.”

They are indeed.

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And then, there are birches.

Birch trees are not like any other tree. They are not like any other thing. If you grew up amid birch groves, you know: birch is a song. It is living prayer. It is the light of the Divine connecting the soil and the sky.

20130916_142906If you have touched a birch tree — a real, grown, Northern birch — you know the feeling of its coarsest, strongest bark wrapped in an airy shawl finer than lace, thin as a spider web, so smooth that you can stand there leaning on her motherly trunk, just caressing her bark, for hours, wondering how this could be.

If you have lain on your back, on the soft grass in a birch grove, looking up into the sky, you know that the birch foliage is like living tulle, shading and protecting, letting through the air and light. It will play with your face, letting the sun dance on it in tiny sparks and then hiding it, wooshing and singing over you and then resting. Birch leaves are heart-shaped, not quite as much as linden but shy, just hinting at it, and jagged at the edges, so when you immerse yourself into the birch’s mane, her hug will feel as if a hundred purring cats were licking your face with their rough, though dry, little tongues.

Birches turn first in the fall, along with the maples. Next to the maples’ scarlet-red, fire-and-blood urgency, birch trees will fade from the green into an unearthly, heavenly yellow — the lightest and purest yellow that has ever come off the Creator’s brush — and will lose it slowly into the winds, becoming transparent and vulnerable, emaciated but serene in their blackness and whiteness, ready to merge with the coming snow.

In Russian, birch is a “she.” She must be. She’s always been. She is the bride and the mother. She is the symbol and poetic image of the beloved, of everything tender and beautiful, of Russia herself. Her unprepossessing spring flowers are like tasteful earrings a shy girl puts on for her betrothed. In the summer, she is shade, sweet juice, and bark for the shoes. In the fall, she is beauty unequaled, a reminder of all things good. In the winter, she’s fuel for the fire and hope for a spring to come.

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And then, on a day when you are tired from walking through the forest, or picking mushrooms and berries, or if you are lost and alone, she who has lived her life to the fullest will ask you to sit and rest, and serve you as a bench, and make you feel cared for.

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I don’t get to go home to Russia, not anymore. My home is here, and I feel at home in several places on this continent in different ways — and my true home is something not even I understand, I only know it’s not a place. But nothing quite equals in meaning the home that has made you a person between nothing and adulthood, the sights and smells and songs and habits in which you lived and moved and had your being while you were figuring out the boundaries of self.

And so my heart goes pitter-patter when I catch that first sight of the birches and mountain ash. I am glad I’ve found them again. I don’t get to go to Russia, but I can come, perhaps, to visit the birches, to hold them and feel them mother me when I hug them with every bit of my body I can and merge all into one. When I come to bow low to the ground, the Russian way. From time to time.

Permanent link to this article: http://onmounthoreb.com/on-mountain-ash-and-other-miracles/

4 comments

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  1. Sr. Ann Marie

    There is a Native American legend about the Mountain Ash which I’d read shortly after becoming a novice. I wrote about it in my personal blog which I haven’t kept up. The legend comes from the Ojibwa Native Americans. Many years ago, before Canada even had a name, there was a terrible severe winter with temperatures well below zero that left birds and and small animals lying dead on large snowdrifts. The Ojibwa people saw this and began praying to the Great Manitou out of fear that the same evil spirits that killed the wildlife would destroy them also.

    The Great Spirit answered by telling them to take a drop of blood from every dead bird and small animal and smear it on the tree that meant life and death to their people. Because the mountain ash was the tree from which they made their bows and arrows, which was their only means of hunting, defense and survival, they chose that tree and began carrying out the instructions of the Great Manitou. The next morning every tree they had smeared had thousands of berries upon it, and the birds and small animals that survived the winter were the ones who perched on its branches and ate the berries. The happy Indians celebrated and danced through the night, giving thanks to the Great Manitou, who promised that whenever a cold winter approached these trees would be covered with berries.

    I take heart in this beautiful story. It reminds me, when I need reminding, that God always leads us to what will be life giving and draw us to God’s heart. In the moment, it may not make sense, it may even be painful. But God knows us better than we know ourselves, delights in our being, and longs to draw us close.

    Thank you for a beautiful reflection on the beauty of the Northland, and for your gracious, beautiful presence among us for two weeks. You are gift to us, to me. – Love, peace, joy from SAM

    1. River Adams

      That’s a beautiful legend, thank you, Sr. Anne Marie. We come to a plentiful and most cherished fulfillment sometimes by way of sorrow marked with blood. But then, that’s what memory is for. There is such a sense of Nature’s care in this legend…

  2. Zebulun

    Minnesota has a welcoming landscape. I was not born here, but was later transplanted. Now, I cannot imagine living anywhere else. In fact, I have tried and failed to leave. The land here envelopes you, seeps into your memory.

    I hope that you return someday.

    1. River Adams

      Thank you, my friend. I hope so too.

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