About Birch Trees

When is a book about birch trees not a book about trees? When it’s sub-titled, "a Russian Reflection.”

Tom Jeffreys’ 2021 release is part history, part art study, part travel memoir, part meditation. It’s always political. Reading The White Birch has been an immersive journey through Russian history and landscape searching out the ubiquitous and photogenic white birch.

The book opens with a listing of the various types of birch trees that become actors in the book. It ends with an extensive bibliography for readers to further explore the complexities of Russia. 

Manitoba aspen 
Everything from landscape art of pre-communist times to Stalin-era posters to the lyrics of modern Pussy Riot music and the philosophy of Aleksandr Dugin, finds its way into this book about birch trees which explores the very soul of Russia. It’s a must-read if you appreciate the power of landscape to define a nation and want to get a better understanding of this complicated country. 

From rustic, poverty-stricken rural settlements to professionally designed urban parks, the author searches out the birch tree and always finds it. From oil paintings to poems to advertisements to songs, the birch tree claims its spot. A tree of nostalgia, of the feminine, it’s become a Russian cliché. 

I needed access to the internet to really appreciate the images mentioned in this book. I was constantly searching out the places, paintings and artists that the author mentions. This was not a fast read. Good for a long prairie winter. 

We don’t have a lot of birch trees in Manitoba. More aspen which looks quite similar but with a darker bark. Aspen forests are the first to shimmer green in the spring and pure amber in the fall.

But next time I spot a birch while out hiking, I’ll be reflecting on Russia. A white birch tree will never again be just a tree. 

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