Say it with saplings

PEOPLE who urge us to preserve our forests by using tin Christmas trees should step forward now and embrace a new cause -- let us straighten out this business of the birches in Germany. I have just learned that by longstanding tradition the amorous swain of that country whose thoughts have been turned by springtime is wont to repair by stealth and by night into the greenwood and fetch his ladylove a birch sapling, which he stands stealthily by her portal to affirm his affection.

Here in Maine we have always done much the same thing with the Maybasket -- a gaudy container of ribbons and roses and goodies which is hung on her doorbknob. She, responding to a thump on the lintel, must then (according to longstanding tradition) chase and catch the donor, after which the goodies may be consumed. In this way suit is pursued, and there is no great harm done to standing timber. But in Germany, this custom has led to such wanton midnight thievery of birches that (the report from the German Information Center tells us) the species is endangered.

Sighing like furnaces, the lovelorn lads bring birches as Malcolm's soldiers carried off Birnam's woods, and a popular young lady as yet unbetrothed will wake surrounded by trees. Clearly an emergency exists, and we should rally before love wreaks disaster.

But wait! As I read on, it seems that the problem may already be solved, and we can stay with our tin Christmas trees and relax. It seems that Bonn, the capital of the German Federal Republic, has already taken steps to save the birches by licensing the longstanding tradition. Henceforth, the young man bent on protesting his love for his fair lady by bringing her a birch must first repair to the city hall and apply for a license to practice the custom and a permit to go and cut a birch.

I breathe a sigh of relief, for I once experienced such a process, and it tends to deter. There is something about German officialdom. One time I needed a notary to validate my absentee ballot, and my single visit to a public bureau sufficed; another time I would simply refrain from casting my vote. And I can readily surmise what it will be like to step into the Bonn city hall and apply to the Bureau of Birches. The man will have a record book about eight feet long into which he will enter every pertinent fact, and he will have a bucket of rubber stamps which must be thumped in triplicate under each item. It will, I think, be a brave boy who will attempt to swim upstream against a flood tide of German bureaucracy.

The Germans love their woodlands, and always walk in the paths. So if a lad does care to lift a hand and take oath that he purposes to fetch his girlfriend a birch, and is willing to fork over the statutory fee of 15 deutsche marks for his license and permit, he must still face up to the strict forest management that has accumulated over the years -- a system that gives every twig and leaf full personality in the rangers' book. When a tree sprouts in Germany it becomes a statistic, and has its place in the book and its rubber stamp.

Having a license to take your sweetie a birch and bearing a permit to cut one in the woods is by no means the end of this vernal venture. I can see the young man in my mind's eye, approaching the wood lot with hatchet and his briefcase of certified documents, and he is halted by the forest ranger, who, in turn, must enter everything in a book and stamp verifications. (For field use, there are portable pocket stamp cases with ink pads.) When all is confirmed, the young man will be led into the woods and shown just which birch he may take, conforming to the planned program of arboreal perpetuation. And, besides setting up the license bureau at city hall and enlisting the rangers, Bonn has provided stiff fines for birch snatchers who illegally practice the custom. Which leaves the whole thing about as romantic as stumbling over a wheelbarrow.

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