Thursday, June 10, 2010

A thorough birching

I have been bogged down on the Betulaceae for quite a while now.  Not like the Anacardiaceae but still, there is a lot of birch out there.  As a result of all that birch out there, there is a lot of birch in the herbarium wood collection.

Birch trees are the first trees about which I have a specific childhood memory.  There were a few paper birches in the yard of my family's home & the temptation to peel those white strips all the way around could be overwhelming.  I remember brushing the palm of my hand over the frayed edges that had naturally peeled away hoping & hoping not to roll them away just a little bit further.  I remember being told that to do so, all the way around would kill the tree & I wanted so badly to do it anyway.

As it happens paper birches are indeed on the decline; deer & paper manufacturers do not share my conflict of spirit.  This tree was once considered an almost aggressive weed tree (I am quite sure we had them because the white trunks were at least something to look at when all the leaves were gone).  Where you chopped down one birch, three more would grow.  Unless you paved over the entire grove or  drained the adjacent wetland.  As I recall, the birches in our yard preferred lower land & wet feet.

Later in life,  I learned of that other famous birch, John Birch.  For no good reason I seem to get the man confused with another man, John Stuart Mill, which is just, well bizarre.  They are both named John....& so are a gazillion other people past& present that I am able to keep separate from either of them.  This confusion is why I am always Always ALWAYS caught off guard when the John Birch Society does something well, fairly typical for themselves. Most recently it was they have groused about the lack of documentation (their word) that "Clean, safe water is a right for all Americans"  while also biotching because full-on access to guns is  indeed a right of all Americans & they have the documentation.  If only the framers of the Constitution had thought to say "oh by the way, water that is not poisoned, that's good too".  It might help you understand how confused I make myself if I provide John Stuart Mill's most famous quote:  Although it is not true all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.

Which finally brings us to today's word: birching.  Once upon a time it meant a sound whipping, often with a birch whip, hence the "birch" in "birching".  You don't hear that one much any more.  Birching in schools (I am guessing I first encountered this word somewhere along the way with Laura Ingalls Wilder) has gone out of fashion...& I do mean fashion.  Whether it will come back or not I cannot say.   Having been on the receiving end of a particular teacher's targeted malice I would hope not, but having seen first hand what passes for self-discipline (& how one unregulated frosh can incite the whole class) I wonder if there are other options.  So there you are, three old words to use in new (old) ways.

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