Seeing Russia: Birch Juice

by Hanna Miller

while Mississippi spring is often a nearly non-existing stepping stone to scorching, weather advisory summer, in Russia, spring is rogue and radical and the best, the most hopeful winter-waking up time of year. this season in Tatarstan, Russia, spring got a late start and wasn’t fully established until after a mid-April snow storm swept through and reminded all how wonderful it is to be soggy rather than frozen. currently, in late May, temperatures flutter between 60F and 90F. everyday, something new grows, and pale skin perks pink with light delight.

everywhere, spring means fertile, which means planting, which means producing. for about two weeks during Russia springtime, the tall, skeleton white birch trees are ripe for tapping. while Mississippi people check their tomato plants and get ready to scare off the various plant-eating vermin for the year’s first growing season, Russians gather and go into the forest. they tap holes into the ghost white wood, and they wait for a fresh, cool water-like sap to sip.

late April was this year’s prime time. this and every year across Russia, birch trees were tapped in villages and towns where trees outnumber humans. a small, metal handheld screw; skinny, long plastic tubes (much like those used for giving an IV); large, empty water bottles; play-doh – all necessary tools for procuring springtime’s tree-leaked juice.

how: after drilling a small hole into the tree until the point that water is overbrimming in quick beads, place the IV-like plastic tube into the tree hole. stuff all open spaces with play-doh, and then cover surrounding areas with play-doh so that all birch nectar is channeled into the tube which is channeled into a bottle sitting at the tree’s base.

the extraction is not fast; the birch juice drips into bottles steadily but slowly. after a few hours, a sip or two can be taste tested. after a day, a two liter bottle can be brought home.

the birch juice, straight from its source, is brisk, crisp: the first days before the fire ants when it’s warm enough for feet bare and shoeless. initial impression indicates it’s simply water; the aftertaste, however, is remarkably subtle and fresh, reminiscent of a wet brown paper bag in the most charmingly, taste-bud familiar way of licking the bag after it’s all gone. after filtering, one may boil the juice with various things and even transform it into wine or syrup. boiled with honey and lemon, extra nutrients are added to the vitamin-rich juice already very healthy with health-giving goods great for the digestive system, particularly the urinary tract. it must be consumed quickly because it quickly spoils. after the trees’ two-ish weeks of juice giving is up, the birches use their treasure for themselves, and green, logy leaves bloom spring into summer.

Hanna Miller

Hanna is from Mississippi and a Masters of Journalism student at the University of California at Berkeley. Her background is in Russian language + culture, sexual assault crisis response on University campuses, and generational divides between women in the American south. She has experience in documentary + TV production for public broadcasting, radio + web production for the arts and cultural exchange, and non-profit founding, organization, and development.