Essays from
Giving Ground


This is the time of year when I know again that I've badly misjudged aspen. The tree species, "populus tremuloides," is tolerantly referred to around here as "popple."

For most of the year, I wish there were more Norway pines, soft and stately with the wind soughing through their needles. Heaven knows I've planted plenty of them, many for the Forest Service and some for the homestead here. The rabbits and deer sneak in and prune the young seedlings to death.

I wish there were more balsam fir, with their Christmas scent all year round. But the budworm infestations have taken their toll of whole thick stands along the creekways.

On the maple hill, I look toward those balanced shapes, the sumptuous scarlets and burgundies, think of the sap rising in the spring and the hard work and fine reward of syrup, and I wish those trees would grow down the sides of those hills a little more daringly. I bring down seedlings, and they languish.

I wish there were more ash, that lovely strong wood for furniture, sleek and lasting, with smaller boughs for burning on a January evening.

If only the pin cherry would live longer, and the chokecherry and juneberry thickets, the clouds of berries in a good year waiting to be jams and tarts, and the leaves in the fall their delicate peach and coppery pink. But they spend time each year recuperating from the onslaught of the bears; bears pull them right over and break them down to get at the fruit.

If only there were more birch trees here, too, with their paper white elegance. When my mother came to visit from New York, and referred to our grey-white aspen as birch, I didn't correct her. I just let her think...

I wish there were more mountain ash trees, or rowanberry, as they are called in English fairy tales, their sweet autumn bird fruit held in such delightful profusion.

The popple here are misshapen, with blackened, growing-over wounds in their trunks looking as if mythical oxen had gored them. The boughs grow into grotesquely twisted limbs, leaning too far out, protruding at obtuse angles.

But right now, as I look around the yard and up the hill with all this wistfulness, I suddenly see that the old aspen sentries in the yard, and the whole hill and valley beyond, are magnificent, pure gold. I reconsider these popples, not very long-lived, not very symmetrical, not very strong in the wind, nothing one would brag about for furniture, not much good as heat on a winter night. But I reconsider. For these few weeks in October, their glorious color makes me feel as if I really own the sun itself.

Their further redemption is as medicine. Their inner bark contains salicin, the precursor of our modern aspirin, and it works in just the same ways: as an analgesic, an anti-inflammatory agent and a fever reducer.

To make a tincture, first you must identify your tree species correctly. Take one or more good identification books out into the field with you. Never wound any tree to take away its medicine. Have garden clippers or a small hand saw, and clip or saw cleanly, very close to the main trunk, a small, lateral branch.

Bring this home, and either pull at the bark with the clippers, until you have thin strips, or cut many small discs along the length of the branch. By either method, you are exposing the green, live, cambium layer that we all learned about in 10th grade biology. Fill a glass container loosely with these discs or "buttons," or the long thin strips, and fill the jar to the top with vodka or brandy (the liquid must be at least 40 per cent alcohol.)

Cap tightly, label, keep on your kitchen counter and shake every day for 5 - 6 weeks. Strain out the vegetable matter, re-bottle in glass with a tight-fitting lid again. As medicine, take three scant teaspoons of the liquid per day for sore throat, fever, arthritis, colds. DO NOT GIVE TO CHILDREN OR CATS, just as you would not give them aspirin.

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Giving Ground
Superior National Forest
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