- In Every Issue
By John Lienhard
I offer two pictures: One is Howard Hughes’ famed Spruce Goose — until recently, the largest airplane ever built. The other is a small stand of birch trees in Iceland. What could they possibly have in common? The answer is wood. Few people realize that the Spruce Goose is not made of spruce at all. It's made of birch.
Birch has had a remarkable hold on the psyche of northern people around the world. It is the Celtic symbol of rebirth and purification. It’s one of the sacred trees of Norway and Sweden. It supplied Nordic settlers of Greenland and Iceland with lumber and fuel. It’s the only tree native to Iceland. Settlers used it so heavily that they almost exterminated it. Iceland is trying to regrow its last stands of birch (like the one in the photo.) But a huge portion of its trees are now other imported species.
I spoke long ago at a cold-war think-tank in central Siberia. My hosts walked me through a mile of trees to get to their laboratories. (They made sure that I was as lost as Hansel in the woods.) But they told me with some gravity, as we walked, that those trees — white with black streaks — were beryoska, or silver birch.
The Russians drink birch juice. They make it into wine or beer. They once used birch bark to make writing paper, shoes — even casts for broken bones. Their word for birch is kin to their word for taking care of. The Birch tree was a gift from God. They even have a famous national dance group, The Birch Ensemble. It performs eerie gliding dances in honor of birch trees.
Birch forests lie across Russia, Finland, Norway, and Sweden — across the north-eastern United States and up through Canada. They surrounded me when I grew up in Minnesota. Native Americans used their bark to make wigwams, canoes, and every kind of decorative item. The sap makes birch syrup.
Birch is a hard wood, good for furniture and plywood. But it warps if it isn’t well-cured. Hughes' Spruce Goose was made from a special plywood — layers of birch veneer. Hughes put teams of women to work ironing the veneer to stabilize it before it was made into plywood.
Gaze up at that great gun-metal gray airplane, and it's hard to connect it with birch trees. But it really is a true cousin of the Indian canoe. It has the same strength and buoyancy. It manifests the same wedding of strength and grace that has long captivated Nordic peoples around our entire globe.
Left: Howard Hughes’ H-4 Hercules, better known as the Spruce Goose. It now resides in the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, McMinnville, Oregon.
Right: A small stand of surviving birch trees in southern Iceland
View more photos at enginespics.smugmug.com