The birch returns for its autumnal curtain call

By Jayson Jacoby October 18, 2013 10:06 am

The season of the weeping birch tree has come round again and our city basks in its unique beauty.

I don’t own a birch myself but am partial to the species.

Most deciduous varieties please our eyes when they take on their temporary autumn dress, of course.

In New England an entire tourist industry is built on the ephemeral show.

On our modest lot the ash tree transforms the whole southwest corner into a yellow mass in years without a heavy wind.

We also have a small grove of quaking aspens, whose colorful reputation surpasses that of the birch; and last year Lisa planted near the south fence a maple whose leaves mimic a cranberry bog in flood.

Then, too, we who live in the Blue Mountains are lucky that even one of the normally staid conifers, the tamarack, turns flamboyant once the cold weather sets in.

But the birch seems to me a special case.

No other sight captures the essence of fall so well for me as an old birch, aflame against a blue October backdrop.

I don’t quite know why this should be.

Its brilliant yellow, I’ll concede, is not much different from that of an aspen or a cottonwood or a poplar.

There is something, though, some trait I’m incapable of defining with any precision, about a birch’s leaves. Perhaps it’s their shape, which has bit of the maple and dash of the oak; or the way they hang from the gentle curves of their stems, that causes me sometimes to stop, in the middle of a walk, to admire the spectacle.

I was troubled, then, back in early July when Josh Dillen, the Herald’s intern through the Charles Snowden program, told me he had noticed several birches about town that looked poorly.

Josh ended up writing a story about the insect that’s responsible for at least some of these ailing birches.

The pest can be dealt with, fortunately, although I suspect many people, even those who love trees, can’t afford the treatment if such is necessary.

It would be a great loss were Baker to lose any significant share of its weeping birches.

Probably this is unlikely.

Birches have long been a popular tree here, as evidenced by the number of mature ones in our neighborhoods.

And many of my favorites seem to be thriving despite their advanced age — the hoary old specimen in the front yard of the Leo Adler Museum on Main Street, a couple of fine, tall birches on the west side of Second Street near the fire station.

This week’s spate of Indian summer arrived just as some of our birches have approached the apex of their color, the sort of serendipity possible in climates such as ours with such distinct demarcations.

Our climate can be difficult to appreciate, of course — rather like an obnoxious uncle who you sometimes avoid at family gatherings but who always has a couple of ribald jokes that get you laughing no matter how hard you resist.

The May blizzard, the daunting August heat, the unrelenting March wind — these have little to recommend them.

But we accept these annoyances, however grudgingly, as penance for the first balmy spring afternoon when bare skin seems almost to guzzle sunshine, for the chill light of a clear winter morning when the whole world, it seems, has been refreshed and transformed by a fall of snow that came and went, as if by magic, while we slept.

I relish those moments, and many others besides.

But none can eclipse the birch, beaming in the soft light of late afternoon in October, a beacon at the edge of a night that, in the waning of the year, will come fast and hard and cold.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.