EVERYDAY PHILOSOPHY: LESSONS FROM THE BIRCH TREE

Words: Ariel Kiley // Images: Jill Futter

We go on a meditative and philosophic exploration on what it means to find our true selves--and true strength--through change, all while practicing non-attachment. 


The presence that pervades the universe

Is imperishable, unchanging,

Beyond both is and is not,

How could it ever vanish?

-Bhagavad Gita

A tree grows by forming a new layer of fibrous tissues deep within its core. As it grows from the inside, its outer layers expand, and it sheds its old bark to make way for the new. Certain species of trees, such as white or paper birch, shed their bark in curled strips that expose the inner layer, called the cambium, to the elements. In a healthy birch tree, the exposed layer heals quickly.

-Rachel Lovejoy


The birch tree, known for its seemingly fragile, easily peeling bark, is designed to be unattached to its own skin. It has this gorgeous, pearly shell, which it so readily relinquishes. What can this teach us?

When I was a little girl, my grandparents lived on 300 acres of countryside in Charlotte, Vermont, in a house that rose serenely at the end of a long wooden walk. It was four stories tall and was enveloped in aspen trees. My grandmother, after raising eight children, eventually built her own tiny house across the horse meadow tucked against the dark pine forest she called Owl Woods.

A tree grows by forming a new layer of fibrous tissues deep within its core.

Ariel Kiley, at home in Brooklyn.

Ariel Kiley, at home in Brooklyn.

The little house had no electricity. No running water. My sister and I would often spend the night. We squealed about the snake family that lived under the slatted deck, spilled kerosene on our fingers as we helped refill the lamps and were taken on walks out across fields and into the woods by my grandmother.

As it grows from the inside, its outer layers expand, and it sheds its old bark to make way for the new.

One Easter morning my grandmother packed a small knapsack with supplies and took us into Owl Woods. She said we were going to find the Easter bunny. We padded along the cushion of pine needles, breathing in the dense, sappy air. Beneath the ceiling of branches we stayed close to our grandmother's skirt, afraid of the woods' enchanted gloom. 

The presence that pervades the universe is imperishable, unchanging. 

At the bottom of the hill the dark pines gave way to a bright, dreamy birch grove emerging from an icy floor.

Certain species of trees, such as white or paper birch, shed their bark in curled strips that expose the inner layer.

Emerald Forest, my grandmother called it. Arriving at the foot of the forest was a revelation. These spindly trees were luminescent white in the spring, soon to be dripping with jewel upon jewel of green leaves in the summer.

In a healthy birch tree, the exposed layer heals quickly. 

We sat in a little huddle on the ice, and my grandmother took a Bunsen burner and small pot out of her pack. She lit the burner, stirring in milk and cocoa powder. Drinking hot chocolate from tin cups, we speculated on the whereabouts of the Easter bunny. My grandmother said he may have hopped away, but perhaps we should peek around the roots of the nearby trees to see if he'd left any eggs for us.

It sheds its old bark to make way for the new.

We ventured across the ice, amongst the slender birch staffs, in search of small chocolate eggs wrapped in colored foil...

Yes, the bark is fragile. Yes, it willingly peels away. And yes, there's something the birch might have to teach us about shedding our skin, about sloughing off the outfit of our own fragile form and willingly exposing the strong, sturdy, vulnerable trunk beneath, about slipping out of our robes, dropping our pearly identities. Holding our beauty up, then giving it away. Beyond both is and is not, how could it ever vanish?

LESSONS FROM THE BIRCH TREE:

  • Where do you feel fearfully attached to your own appearance? Meditate on the aliveness beneath your shell.
  • What armor have you been carrying around since your last hurt? Might you be stronger than you think beneath your shield? Meditate on letting that armor fall away.
  • What new thing is growing deep inside the core of your being? Meditate on this new growth.

ABOUT ARIEL KILEY

Ariel Kiley specializes in teaching celebratory vinyasa flow, nuts & bolts yoga therapy, techniques to heal imprints of trauma, meditation strategies to uncover joy, impulsive detours into unique kinesthetic experiences and bold invitations to look reality straight in the eye. She teaches classes, workshops, teacher trainings and private lessons throughout Brooklyn, Manhattan and around the world. Ariel is also the co-author of the book "Smitten: The Way Of The Brilliant Flirt".