“It has been hand-planted by Tsarinas and felled by foresters. It has been celebrated by peasants, worshipped by pagans and painted by artists. It has self-seeded across mountains and rivers and train tracks and steppe and right through the ruined modernity of a nuclear fall-out site. And like all symbols, the story of the birch has its share of horrors (white, straight, native, pure: how could it not?). But, maybe in the end, what I’m really in search of is a birch that means nothing: stripped of symbolism, bereft of use-value . . . A birch that is simply a tree in a land that couldn’t give a shit.”
The birch, genus Betula, is one of the northern hemisphere’s most widespread and easily recognisable trees. A pioneer species, the birch is also Russia’s unofficial national emblem, and in The White Birch art critic Tom Jeffreys sets out to grapple with the riddle of Russianness through numerous journeys, encounters, histories and artworks that all share one thing in common: the humble birch tree.
We visit Catherine the Great’s garden follies and Tolstoy’s favourite chair; walk through the Chernobyl exclusion zone and among overgrown concrete bunkers in Vladivostok; explore the world of online Russian brides and spend a drunken night in Moscow with art-activists Pussy Riot, all the time questioning the role played by Russia’s vastly diverse landscapes in forming and imposing national identity. And vice-versa: how has Russia’s dramatically shifting self-image informed the way its people think about nature, land and belonging?
Curious, resonant and idiosyncratic, The White Birch is a unique collection of journeys into Russia and among Russian people.
Published by Little, Brown June 2021.
Praise for The White Birch
“A natural-political exploration of Russian relationships with the birch tree across past, present, and future. Moving from the Tsarina’s garden to the Soviet Gulag, from Chernobyl to Lake Baikal, The White Birch is elegant and intrepid, like its subject.”
– Daisy Hildyard, author of ‘The Second Body’ and ‘Hunters in the Snow’
“One of my earliest photographs, upon learning to walk, is a black-and-white shot of the toddler I was standing in the snow and hugging the trunk of a birch tree. With elegance, humor, and deep insight, Tom Jeffreys’ book explains the cultural framing of this and many other images, from literature to film, from propaganda posters to paintings and even dating ads. The White Birch is a daring, at once sympathetic and critical, experiment in interpreting how national identity is entwined with a tree. More than a book, it is a mirror and a magnifying glass, through which to observe the all-too-human and the other-than-human worlds, as well as, of course, ourselves.”
– Michael Marder, author of ‘Plant-Thinking’, ‘The Philosopher’s Plant’, ‘Grafts’ and ‘The Chernobyl Herbarium’
“A beautiful and profound meditation on the way landscape shapes art and life. I was entranced by The White Birch, a book that comes close to encapsulating the vast enigma of Russia in the form of a single tree.”
– Alex Preston, author of ‘Winchelsea’ and ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’
“Symbols do plenty of work in Tom Jeffreys’ book, and he is expert in understanding them, tracking how they dodge and change. The White Birch is an adventure story that combines the thrills of an intellectual howdunnit with visceral ordeals. Mysteries and contradictions lead the author-detective into dark and threatening forests and through the remote villages, but, satisfyingly, the most intense confrontations with the meanings of birch are in more sedate parks and estates and around the canvases of paintings. Here, Jeffreys combines a vulnerable nous with an inquisitiveness that overcomes what he knows; he is always ready to be overwhelmed by what he finds. And there are some very dark things indeed here…”
– Phil Smith, Mythogeography
“I love this book. Jeffreys admits he doesn’t know where he’s going at every turn, but trusts his instinct — and his ear for a good story — as he tries to untangle myth from fact… This is the great joy of Jeffreys’ book — and of his writing in general. He sets out his stall and then — aware of the petards he’s hoisted for himself — debunks his grand aims. But, rather than an admission of defeat, it’s an acceptance that the subject he’s taken on is far too nuanced for one grand unified theory. The birch, he points out, is an umbrella term for numerous species that are often confused. Like Russia itself, it defies scrutiny because everyone has a different definition of it. Even its role as shorthand for ‘eternal Russia’ is thrown into doubt, since the lifecycle of the birch is incredibly short compared to many species.”
– Mark Hooper, Caught by the River
“Jeffreys is a self-deprecating wit… He may not be fully fluent in Russian, but the author’s greatest strengths are observational. These pages abound with close descriptions of the Russian countryside, which chime with descriptions of nineteenth century landscape paintings.”
– Mark Sheerin, Criticismism
Reading this book felt like a wonderful mix of studying a country and meeting with a friend. I loved the personal tone of the writing with its attention to unexpected details, moments of humour, and intuitively paced narrative. ‘Reflection’ is perfect in the sub-title of this book – a sense of not quite being able to put your finger on what you are encountering, but it is precisely this distance that draws you right in.
– Tessa Berring, author of ‘Bitten Hair’
“…with The White Birch, Jeffreys has discovered his own very unique voice and produced a work that is both profound and beautifully written.”
– Bobby Seal, Psychogeographic Review
Charlotte Hobson, The Spectator
Mark Hooper, Caught by the River
Sophy Roberts, Times Literary Supplement
Russian Art + Culture
Bobby Seal, Psychogeographic Review
Mark Sheerin, Criticismism
Phil Smith, Mythogeography
Ian Tattum, Pilgrim House