Joseph Bruchac



The Gift of the Blanket Tree


Early summer, near the end of that time of year our old people called the Strawberry Moon. I’m in the woods about to peel bark from the maskwamoziak as we call them in Abenaki—the blanket trees. Birch is their Iglizmoniwi name.

Maskwamozi. Blanket tree, the one whose skin covered our lodges.  I love the way that the Abenaki words that first spoke themselves to the minds of my elders countless centuries ago so often catch the sense and the spirit of the beings with whom we share this circle of existence. Know the true name, and we may know the use, know what to be thankful for.  Or, at the very least, better understand and respect.

There’s a story we tell
of maskwamozi.
Once a little girl
was out with her parents
walking through the forest.
Her parents were quarreling
with each other
and did not notice
their daughter
had fallen behind.
When they reached their wigwam,
they turned around
to look for her
but she was gone.
It was growing dark,
and then the snow
began to fall
as they looked for her.
All through the night
they searched for her,
calling her name,
fearing that she
had frozen
in the sudden cold.
But with the morning light
they found their daughter,
alive and warm,
asleep beneath
an old birch tree,
a roll of its bark
wrapped around her.

I feel a sort of completeness here in the forest, a connection harder to make when I’m inside. Part of me longs to just stay here in the woods all day. Not just step briefly into the forest, but remain outside the boundaries of clock time and the restrictions of responsibility to anything other than the ancient cycles of each season.

Interruption for a disclaimer in the interest of honesty. I am not surrendering to a fantasy of dwelling at one with all the happy little forest creatures. There are deer ticks and mosquitoes here. Plus it is soon going to be horsefly season. Some part of nature is always willing and able to eat us.

I think back on my three years of volunteer teaching in the West African nation of Ghana. They were a reality check against my childhood longing, seduced by the inherently racist novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, to live as did Tarzan in the rain forest. Swinging blithely, an overly-muscled exemplar of the master race, on conveniently-hung vines from tree to tree. When I first set foot in a real rain forest, just off the road to Kumasi, and grabbed a hanging vine, the result was a cascade of fiercely-biting red ants down my back and my neck. Followed by a long ululating yell much like that of the legendary ape man.

In truth, only a part of me that wants that forest fantasy. Another sizable portion is perfectly content ensconced in a comfortable chair with a pint of strawberry ice cream, watching The Nightly Show. Or sitting as I am right now at my keyboard.

There is no such thing as an easy life.

But, having said that, there is also such a thing as trying to live that life in a good way. And for me that involves spending time as often as possible out in ktsi kpiwi, the big woods my grandfather first introduced me to when I was two years old. Which brings me back to birch trees.

I run my palms along the smooth body of the first tree that drew me to it, its pale, straight trunk is such a contrast among the brown maples and even darker pines.  Its color is not the pure, untouched whiteness of new snow. It’s a page marked by a black script written in a language that speaks of seasons and decades. An ancient language, it’s one that speaks to those of us fortunate enough to have heard and remembered what elders shared.

On the trunk of the birch, upside-down Vs show where branches once grew. Those marks resemble outstretched wings, the sign of the Thunder Beings. Our Anishinabe cousins to the west see the thunders as immense birds with wings that spread from horizon to horizon, lightning flashing from their eyes. We Wabanaki know them as the Bedagiak, grandfathers who ride the dark clouds, hurling down arrows of lightning to cleanse the land of evil. They love the birch, and those marks are proof of that love.

I’ve been told (though white meteorologists view such native folk traditions as bunk) that birch is the safest tree to shelter beneath during a thunder storm. The Bedagiak seldom choose to strike it with their arrows. As if in proof of that, there’s a lightning scar down the trunk of a big maple only twenty yards away, a tree shorter than this tall birch.

I look further up the trunk of the birch. There’s an ascending series of scratches, sets of four parallel lines incised into the tree, leaving little curlicues of bark as thin as tissue paper. Claw marks from the animal that climbed it. Not big enough or deep enough to be the sign of a young bear scrambling up. Most likely the porcupine I noted near here a few days ago. If you know what to look for, you can read a lot in the woods

I reach into my pocket to take out my tobacco pouch. Always make a physical expression of your gratitude. At least that is how I was taught. Tobacco is a sacred gift. It is only when misused that it becomes a harmful addiction. It was given to us to be shared with all Creation, to be offered as a sign of thanks, burned to carry our prayers up to Ktsi Nwaskw, the Great Mystery with its smoke.

We didn’t always have tobacco.
Once all the tobacco
in the world was owned
by a terrible being known as Cols.
A giant creature
who flew through the air,
the sound of his wings
was louder than thunder.
Cols kept that tobacco
and shared it with no one.
He used its power selfishly.
the one who made
himself from words,
knew this was wrong.
He went to the island
where Cols lived.
All around that island
were the bleached bones
of people who’d come
to get tobacco.
Cols came flying
down at Gluskonba,
the sound of his wings
like rattling bones.
But Gluskonba
grabbed hold of Cols.
Stroking him from head to toe,
he made Cols smaller
and smaller and smaller
until he was only
a little grasshopper.
Then Gluskonba put just a little
of that tobacco into the tiny mouth
of Cols, so he always
would have some of that sacred gift.
But the rest of that tobacco
was given to the Alnobak,
the human beings.
To this day, Cols will sometimes
will fly up and surprise you
with the rattling of his wings,
but he is no longer a danger.
So it is today
that tobacco is in
the hands of the people—
who must always remember
to share it and use it for prayer.

I know from my own experience that it’s always a good thing to give tobacco when you are taking something from the natural world. If nothing else, offering tobacco makes you pause, makes you mindful.

I remember a time two decades ago near Fairbanks. I’d given a talk at the University and had been invited to a reception at the home of my friend Jim Ruppert. In his back yard was a pile of birch logs cut for firewood. Jim gave me permission to take some of that bark—as long as I didn’t take too long since the guests would soon be arriving. I was in such a hurry to peel that bark that I didn’t bother to make an offering or even express my thanks verbally. As I made the first cut, the knife slipped in my hand and sliced into my palm. I ended up offering not tobacco, but some of my blood to the Alaskan earth in exchange for that bark.

I take tobacco from my pouch. It’s not commercially grown but nicotina rustica, the old Indian tobacco we call wdamo wabanaki. I raised it from seeds passed on to me by Tom Porter, a Mohawk elder whose Indian name Sakokwenionkwas means One Who Wins. A man who is also known to those fortunate enough to be in his presence, as one of the most generous of teachers. And because it is important to always remember our teachers, it is with his gentle face in my mind that I carefully place the tobacco at the base of the birch.

Wliwini, nidoba maskwamozi
Thanks, friend blanket tree
Ktsi wliwini odzi kia
Great thanks to you

Then I make the first long cut from top to bottom. I press the knife into the trunk just deep enough to take off that top layer. When you girdle most trees, slicing through the outer layer of growth, you sever the phloem, that complex vascular tissue of sieve tubes and companion cells where nutrients are carried up from the roots. Strip the bark all the way around an ash, an elm, a basswood—and it will die.

But not the blanket tree. Birch can shed its outer layer without great harm to the tree. If you walk through the forests near many of our contemporary Native communities where there are birch trees, you’ll see tree after tree whose bark has been respectfully harvested, wide rings of light brown wood showing where birches gave up their blankets.

All along the trail
I see the marks
of people who came
to these hills before me,
there in the remembering trees

People who work the woods can tell you that every tree gives off its own odor when you cut into it. Your hands and clothes and hair take on that smell. When you come home at night, it’s as if you are bringing the breath of the forest with you. I remember how my grandfather smelled after a day of working in the piney woods. Moist sawdust stuck on his boots, his hands—which were already brown as earth—even darker from the sap of the trees, the scent of the forest all around him. 

Pine’s breath is sharp and tangy. Beech is like peppermint. And the scent released from birch is a bit like that of beech, but not as strong. It’s a clean, refreshing smell, as subtle an odor as the earth-making scent of the cushioning layer of old leaves and pine needles beneath my bare feet.

I finish the vertical cut and follow it with two more around the tree. One at the top, one at the bottom, going from left to right. That’s the direction in which to peel the bark. I know no other reason for this than that I was told to do it that way. Everywhere I’ve been where birch bark is peeled by native people—Athabascans in Alaska, Anishinabes in Wisconsin, Penobscots in Maine—I’ve heard that’s the right way to do it.

It makes as much sense as what I was told by a certain medicine person about the way to gather the bark from another plant I’m not going to name. Peel it upward and you can use it as an emetic. Peel it downward and it becomes a diuretic. Not exactly logical in the western way of thinking. But who cares if it works?

The piece of bark I’m about to peel will be a shingle about three feet by three feet. No particular reason for that size other than we can manage it easily and there are no large knots or rough places in the bark within that expanse that would make peeling harder. It is plenty big enough to be a nice-sized section of the covering we’ll eventually use to clothe the new conical wigwam at our Ndakinna Education Center—the 90-acre family forest preserve my mom put into a conservation easement twenty years ago where my sons and I teach.

I loosen the bark with the edge of my hatchet, begin to work my fingers up and down. And the bark starts to loosen. I go slow, applying steady, careful pressure as it makes little tearing noises, almost like Velcro letting go.  Then, with a popping sound, the big piece of bark releases itself from the layer of growth beneath, leaping off the tree into my hands. A gift to be accepted and used with care, a good start for this day of peeling birch bark.

Peeling bark
my hands are touching
all those who touched
this tree before me
Two-legged and
four-legged ones
and those who fly
With a sharpened twig
I draw their shapes
on the brown inner bark
so doing, I know
their spirits will come
will speak to me
in my dreams