The Birch's Family Tree

NOT long ago, the veracities of improvisation brought to this department a reference to the "Gatchell" birch. Our Down-East readers smiled, but a reader named Geraldine in far-off 97352 hastened to inquire what Gatchell birch might be.

She writes that her grandfather, John Richard Gatchell of Dixmont, Maine, may be connected, since she is a student of such things.

Sometimes, dear Geraldine, it is prudent to let ancestral matters languish in the past, something I learned in my youth when an aunt sawed into the lumber of our family tree and found a rascal who robbed a bank.

Maine has eight kinds of birch, one of which was introduced - the Betula alba L., or European white birch. We also have a couple of hornbeams, which are related and make good whiffletrees for twitching-horses. Strong.

Of all these, the gray birch (Betula populifolia Marsh), is the least, and the one which got tagged unkindly as "Gatchell." In Dixmont (and anywhere else in Maine) Gatchell was prolly pronounced getch'l, and perhaps gitch'l. Dixmont is in Penobscot County, which is named for the Penobscot Tribe (Algonquian) of the Abnaki Confederacy, resident thereabouts since I forget. It is important that Geraldine know the Indians.

I shall tell her what my granddaddy told me one evening when we had a fire in the kitchen range in answer to one fall's first coolish evening. Grandfather was neither an Indian nor a Gatchell.

He told me the legend of the Chief Arambie of the Sabattus people, who dickered with the Great Spirit over the trees. Chief Arambie was blessed with eight lovely daughters, each more beautiful than the others, and because of their beauty and their skill in the arts the Great Spirit desired them. He approached Chief Arambie in the full of the Summer Moon to declare his passion.

For each young lady, Chief Arambie set the price of a certain kind of tree, to which the Great Spirit willingly agreed, and Chief Arambie bade his daughters skiddoo. They became bright stars by which any brave could find his position, and forever the people were blessed with eight special trees - or kinds of wood.

Grandfather told me the hackmatack (for one) gave sinews for binding birch (for another) bark in the making of a canoe. The poplar would burn without smoke - a boon to the warriors on the trail when they didn't want the enemy to know they were about. Each for each, the eight trees became essential to Indian life, and Chief Arambie was venerated by all the people for so generously bestowing his daughters in so useful a manner.

And one of the trees was the gray birch. It is not such a much, as trees go, or grow, and one with a six-inch bole is more than mature and will soon crumple to the ground and go "dozy." It soon turns to punk and rots into the ground. The wood has no commercial value and as a fuel burns quickly with no great heat but a greasy smoke that fouls a frying pan and soots the stove and chimney.

The Great Spirit, however, devised it to Chief Arambie's specifications because it would "burn under water." That is, it can be kindled green when it is full of sap - something other woods will not readily do. On the trail, a brave could hack down a gray birch sapling and make a fire even in the rain. This was the greatest boon of all, and that daughter became the brighest star in the Penobscot firmament.

We can now return to the Gatchells.

Old Bill Gatchell lived in Skunk's Misery Gore, and he was an indifferent sort who never kept his woodshed adequate. He was also shiftless in other matters which need not be enumerated now.

His wife, who was a Grover from Kettlebottom Hardscrabble, endured her lot, and used gray birch for firewood, which at times she cut herself while Old Bill was resting. She had a Modern Clarion cookstove with a side-loading firebox, and to spare sawing the gray birch into stovewood lengths, she would thrust one end of a sled-length tree into the stove and rest the other end on a chair across the kitchen. She would move the chair closer as the day wore along.

Hence, dear Geraldine, "Gatchell Birch."

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