Kim Trainor

from Seeds

20.                                                                                                                    , k’i
, beith, birch, first letter of ogam ᚛ᚑᚌᚐᚋ᚜ the tree language.

Is there something it is like to be a birch tree, in the conversion of sunlight to green shadows and tree flesh?

We had not seen each other for weeks, except by Skype. We walked the river trails along the Saskatchewan.

The word birch,qwəłin, is present in ancient Proto-Salish indicative of its use at the base of the language.

qwəłin, qw əłʔin-az’, qw łínłp, qw qw łin’, sə́ kw ’əmiy, haawa' , k’i, k’ih, k’ii, k’I, ᐊᐧᐢᑲᐧᔨ ᒦᑐᐢ, wigwaas, silver birch, canoe birch, Kenai birch, paper birch.

The word for birch is also very ancient in the Athabaskan language, an unanalyzable monosyllable that reconstructs back to at least the Proto-Athabaskan language and perhaps dates to an even earlier language stock: Proto-Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit.

In the sunlight, which sluices down. Stitch carbon to carbon.
Leaves, leaves. A lung. An eye. Eyes. Dilating to sun.
To remove a bark strip from the tree, two cuts were made horizontally and one vertically with a sharpened tool and the bark piece was peeled off in a rectangular sheet…

Light. Dark. Light. Dark. Light.

Some of the earliest Buddhist manuscripts are written in black ink on strips of birch bark. The Kharoṣṭhī manuscripts, circa first century common era, were preserved in clay jars: a Dharmapada, avadānas, Purvayogas, Abhidharma, Khargaviaa-sutra, or Rhinoceros sutra—
endure troubles
wander alone
like the rhinoceros

The scrolls were reinforced by a thread sewn along both margins. In a few cases traces of the original thread are preserved, and in many places the needle holes along the margins are still visible.

It was along the banks of the Saskatchewan. The city veiled in smoke from BC wildfires. I could taste the ash on my tongue.

I saw lenticels for the first time. Stitches in the pale bark, or more like a thin gash stitched closed.
Is there something it is like to breathe oxygen in through so many gaping mouths in skin?        o o o
The Bakhshali manuscript from the second century common era consists of mathematical formulae and rules drawn on fragments of birch bark, rules for algorithms, quadratic equations, negative numbers and so on are written in verse, followed by prose elaboration. It includes the earliest known use of a symbol for zero, to become the shunya-bindu, ‘dot of the empty place.’

Zero, the seed of an idea.
Sips of oxygen.
We were breathing in the ash of trees. It was as if the air were filled with a fine crushed chalk. And it was very still.
It can be so hard to speak, after a long absence. As if the body needs to acclimate. We wandered the shore trails, alternating silence and faltering talk, like a Super 8 film, image and sound out of synch.
And the sun? How does it feel to need the sun in this way, green wavelengths reflected, its warmth absorbed by a multitude of trembling leaves?
There is another way to describe this, in the language of elements 
The Bower manuscript of the 6th century common era, found near Kuchar, along the old Silk Road north of Takla Makan, transcribes a recipe for soma, inscribed on birch bark:

And when the whole is reduced to one-eight of the original quantity, boil in it pastes made of fine powder of one pala each of the following drugs: Balâ, Nâgabalâ, Jîvâ, cowhage, Nata, juice of sugar- cane, Sprikkà, small cardamoms and cinnamon-bark, Jîvaka, Rishabhaka, Mêdâ, Madhuka, and blue lotus, the colour producing saffron, aloe-wood, and cinnamon-leaves, Vidârî, Kshîrakakôlî, Vîrâ, and Śârivâ, Śatâvarî, Priyangu, Gudûchî, filaments of the lotus, Lâmajjaka, red and white sandal, and fruits of Râjâdana, pearl, coral, conch-shell, moon-stone, sapphire, crystal, silver, gold, and other gems and pearls, liquorice, madder, and Amśumatî. Boil the whole slowly over a gentle fire with four pâtra of (sweet) oil and eight times as much of milk, adding also tamarind juice and vinegar of rice, one half as much as the milk. This boiling should be repeated a hundred or even a thousand times; and when it is thoroughly done, it may be known by this sign, that on the approach of the proper time the oil stiffens by exposure to the rays of the sun.

Lenticular mouths opening to darkness.

Fig. 1. Pôthi of the Bower Manuscript, taken from Hoernle (2011, Plate VII).

We propose that Soma was a combination of a protoberberine alkaloids containing Tinospora cordifolia juice with MAO-I properties mixed together with a tryptamine rich Desmodium gangeticum extract or a blending of Tinospora cordifolia with an ephedrine and phenylethylamine- rich Sida spp. extract. Tinospora cordifolia combined with Desmodium gangeticum might provide a psychedelic experience with visual effects, while a combination of Tinospora cordifolia with Sida spp. might lead to more euphoric and amphetamine-like experiences.” [source: Soma, food of the immortals according to the Bower Manuscript (Kashmir, 6th century A.D.). Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Vol.155, Iss.1, 8 August 2014. pp.373-386.

I have read that consciousness might be understood as intrinsic to matter, part of every cell like chromosomes. That at a certain threshold, a certain mass of cells, there is emergence of a consciousness we might recognise as human. But that even consciousness can be thought of as a continuum, like a faint background hum in the world that sometimes breaks through as bird song or nigun.

Light. Dark. Light.
We try to speak across a gulf wide as the universe.
How does a paper birch experience the qualia of deep blue or ash, the cut of a knife?
There were curls of birch bark, wide enough to clasp my wrist, littered here and there over the ground. It wasn’t clear which had sloughed off naturally and which had been peeled.
Wigwaasabak, birch bark scrolls, were used by the Ojibway/Anishinaabe people to inscribe maps and geometrical patterns. Mide-wiigwaas, of the Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Society, recorded sacred knowledge of the Mide.

Sacred Ojibwa scrolls found after 70 years
CBC News · Posted: May 09, 2000 8:50 AM ET | Last Updated: May 9, 2000

In the 1930s, an American anthropologist named Irving Hallowell journeyed north to Canada to live among the Ojibwa and study their culture. He left with a wealth of knowledge - and something else. He took a bundle of sacred scrolls, made out of birch bark, and central to the performance of ancient religious ceremonies of the tribe. The scrolls were never forgotten by those whose ancestors used them. Some elders in the tribe remember the old ways of doing things. Elder Donald Bird still uses the sweat lodge behind his house. There were other rituals, like the drum and the shaking tent, used to conjure the souls of the living and the dead.

Friday 8 November, 2019. New Westminster, at the college. Feast With A Poet at the Aboriginal Gathering Place. A talk by Liz Howard on her poetic practice, a projected image of a birch bark scroll overhead, from a book written by an uncle.
I have also read that consciousness is simply the hallucination of a lived body. Or is epiphenomenal, just as smoke drifts from a fire. But there is still this lived feeling, what it is like to be. I have to trust this intuition.
Crystalline needles thread bark. Layers of botulin.
There was often the same delay by Skype, words not quite matched to lips, a lag between question and response. Or the image would freeze and go dark, the connection lost.
C30H50O2. Betulin. Betuline. Whitening.
Birch bark postcard, from the Gulag, Inventory No.TR424. Written by political prisoner Antanos Baniulis (1892-1945) in one of the camp sections of the KrasLag at Reshoty Station in the Nizhneingash Region of Krasnoyarsk krai. Dated 18.05.1943. addressed to his daughter, Dana Baniulytė (born 1924), who was in exile in the settlement Kazachii, Ust’-Iansk Region of the Yakutsk ASSR. The stamp of the military censor is on the envelope, and there are sections that have been deleted by the censor.
Springwood, latewood. Springwood, latewood.

Reddened buds at branch tips, ripen to catkin

The voids that mar Gulag correspondences are as evocative of the conditions that produced them as their messages. Occasional black marks left by censors; pages torn  or rendered illegible as the result of water damage; everything that inmates and their relations do not say…

Some of the birch trees had been cut with the initials of letters. On one trunk a rectangle of bark had been removed with surgical precision. Peels of greyish-white bark littered the ground like bandages.

956 catalogued gramoty—texts, letters—written on beresty, strips of birch bark, were discovered in Novgorod during Soviet times. These dated from the medieval period.
Gramoty fragment No.827. Mid-12th century. Drawing of two interlocking birds. The words:
and we went on and on
Dust of ochre pollen. Thin scratching chickadees. Sapsucker, tap tap.
Gramoty fragment No.521. Early 15th century. Catalogued as a love spell.
---so let your heart
and body be kindled
and your soul for me
and for my body
and for my face
A tightening. Little shivers. Sap flow.

Late afternoon. The sun was a smoked pink disc. Everything softened by the smoke, like a faded postcard. We followed the trail east as it wound along the river and led us to the footpath beneath the bridge.
 Carbon to carbon to carbon. Hydrogen. Oxygen.
Paper birch is often the first tree to grow in ravaged areas. It can take root in the thinnest of soils, and sites disturbed by wildfire, avalanche, mine spoils—coal, lignite, rock phosphate, slate, oil-shale, bauxite, and gold.
In undisturbed stands, it can make between 2.2 and 294 million seeds per acre. Its little winged seeds dispersed by wind.
Springwood, latewood. Heartwood. Heartwood. Thickening.
It moves slowly. But for a tree, so fast. A birch tree lives on average only 150 years. It burns through life.
An itch. Tearing. Slow peel to pink salmon flesh.
A source of food for wintering moose. For white-tailed deer and snowshoe hares who feed on saplings. Porcupines on the inner bark. Ruffled grouse on the catkins and buds.
Green alder, beaked hazel, blackberry, raspberry, elder, gooseberry. Nearby.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers drill holes in the bark. Hummingbirds and red squirrels feed at the sapwells.
A flight of winged seeds. Here, on this scorched ground.
Its leaves devoured by the bronze birch borer, tent caterpillar, birch skeletonizer, birch leafminer, the saddled prominent, the gypsy moth, the sparmarked black moth, sawflies, cambium miners.
Embryonic roots split the seed coat. Take hold in thin mineral soil.
Microorganisms enter the wounds. Inonotus obliqua. Phellinus igniarius. Nectria galligena.
A shoot, through mineral waste. A clearing. Blue.
We stepped into the metal underpass and walked out over the river. You said the birch tree refugia marked an earlier migration, trees that remained as the ice retreated north.
Sunlight. A leaf and a leaf. Stitch carbon to water. Leaves.
Leaves greening. Carbon to carbon. Lignin. The heartwood. The sapwood runs.
You told me of birchbark canoes, lightweight and waterproof. That birch burns very hot.
I have since learned that the common word for ‘birch’ in Indo-European is the verb, to shine.
Yellow birch, grey birch. Kin.
To make a birch bark container: Women would stitch together the edge seams with a bone awl and split roots of spruce, Western redcedar, or cottonwood and then caulk the seams with pitch.
We can’t even identify the neural correlates of consciousness in humans.
Dense cakes of dehydrated berries, cherries, and rosehips were boiled with hot stones in birch bark and cedar root baskets.
Where might the correlates be in trees?
Pin cherry, red maple, Jack pine or ash. Nearby.
Saponin from the leaves, crushed as soap. Resin as waterproof glue. A Firestarter. A light canoe. Bread from the inner bark ground up as flour. Sap fresh or fermented as wine.

A 2000 year old birch basket found at the Ollie site on the Canadian Plateau, that is, ancestral land of the Tsilhqot’in, Dakelh, Secwepemc, and Upper Nlaka’pomux, contained seeds of Saskatoon and raspberry, tiny fragments of charcoal, blades of grass, salmonid bones.
Roots in darkness. Plaits mycelium. Sends signals, sugars. Links to kind.
Phytochemists are conducting ongoing studies to identify, extract, and test natural chemicals (pentacyclic triterpenes) present in birch bark for their antiallergic, anti-viral, anti-microbial, anti-malarial, hepatoprotective, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory effects.
Fomitopsis betulina, the birch bracket, filters out heavy metals, like radiocaesium. An edible fungus with a distinct scent of green apples.
Carbon to carbon.
We walked out part way over the river, and then turned back. Taste of ash. Now talk, now silence.
Crackling of root tips in underground channels. Signals inaudible to humans.
Still this space between us. Maybe it is always there. Even when you know what I will say before I say it.
Root tips reaching out to fungal threads, through dark soil.
A sentinel.
Scent of green apples. Of wintergreen.
I could taste it. The pall of trees in my lungs.
A redacted text, a postcard.
What little diffused light came through.
And then cold, cold. Stillness. Snow falls.
I drew a curl of birch bark around my wrist.
A lover’s spell.
Shattered fruits. Glitter of seeds.
Ringed heartwood to record Siberian winters.
Genetic script unfurling.
Lenticels opening to take small breaths.
Soft pink. Ash.
Springwood, latewood. Springwood, latewood.
A refugee migrating north.
The pall of smoke.
Stitching the snow.
A memory of ice.
An alphabet.
A girl. A tree.
Beautiful cell.
,  k’i.
Winged seed.

Acknowledgements: “T, k’I, betula”

Details on Ogam, the “tree language:” Damian McManus’s A Guide to Ogam. (Maynooth, 1991.)

Gandhāran scrolls: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/gandharan-scrolls + Wikipedia entry on Kharoṣṭhī scrolls; British Library archival description; translation of verse from Rhinoceros Sutra is my own based on a literal translation.

Bakhshali MS: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Bakhshali_manuscript

Bower MS: original recipe for Soma + biochemical translation: “Soma, food of the immortals according to the Bower Manuscript (Kashmir, 6th century A.D.).” Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Vol.155, Iss.1, 8 August 2014. pp.373-386. by Marco Leonti and Laura Casu.

Wiigwaasabak: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/sacred-ojibwa-scrolls-found-after-70-years-1.227492

Gulag postcard on birchbark: http://www.gulagmuseum.org/showObject.do?object=38988890&language=2 (postcard inventory TR424); translation into English by Google translate; Gulag Letters by Arsenii Formakov.

Gramoty fragments: “Onfim wuz here…” by Justin E. H. Smith; http://gramoty.ru/birchbark/document/show/novgorod/521/
also fragments 837, 521, 199; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onfim

Recipe for Birch Wine is from John Worlidge’s 1676 Vinetum Britannicum: Or a Treatise of Cider and Other Wines and Drinks.

Details on birch baskets in the pre-Kamloops period (roughly 2000 years before present time) are found in “Barking up the right tree: understanding birch bark artifacts from the Canadian Plateau, British Columbia” by Shannon Croft and Rolf W. Mathewes. In BC Studies. Vol.180, pp.83-122.

Betula papyrifera: Much of the technical descriptions of birch throughout has been drawn from a monograph on Betula papyrifera Marsh by the US Federal Forest Service; words for paper birch in First Nation languages: firstvoices.com; https://www.firstvoices.com/explore/FV/sections/Data/search/birch, and “Appendix 2B. Names of Native Plant Species in Indigenous Languages of Northwestern North America,” supplemental to Nancy J. Turner’s 2014 by McGill-Queen’s University Press: Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge. Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America https://dspace.library.uvic.ca/bitstream/handle/1828/5091/Appendix%202B%20%20UVicSpace%20Indigenous%20names%20of%20native%20species_BIG.pdf?sequence=5&isAllowed=y

Kim Trainor is a Canadian poet, the granddaughter of an Irish banjo player and a Polish faller who worked in the logging camps around Port Alberni in the 1930s. Her second book, Ledi, short-listed for the 2019 Raymond Souster Award, describes the excavation of an Iron Age horsewoman’s grave in the steppes of Siberia. Her next book is Bluegrass. Her poetry has won the Gustafson Prize, the Malahat Reivew Long Poem Prize, and the Great Blue Heron Prize. She teaches in the English Department at Douglas College and lives in Vancouver, unceded homelands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
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