In her memorable novel Reindeer Moon, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas tells a harrowing tale of a winter birth in Ice Age Siberia. As Yanan, seven winters old, is traveling with her family between winter lodges, her mother goes into labor. While the family makes camp, Yanan's mother goes off alone to find a suitable birthing-place. (Since predators are drawn to the smell of blood, to give birth in camp would endanger everyone.)

She finds herself a spruce with a good, strong trunk to brace her back against, low protecting branches, and ample duff to absorb the birth fluids. She builds a fire for what warmth and protection it can offer, crouches against the bole of the tree—squatting is the natural birthing-position for humans, with Earth herself helping to pull the baby from the womb—and prepares herself for a long night.

Thomas knows whereof she speaks. As a young woman in the 1950s, her anthropologist parents took her and her siblings to the Kalahari Desert to live with the !Kung, among the very last of Earth's hunter-gatherers. Her personal experience and careful observation of Bushman culture lend her stories of the Eurasian Ice Age a noteworthy sense of authenticity.

I am struck by the notion of the birth-tree; it seems so entirely logical. Here in the North Country, I suppose one would look for a cedar, for all the same reasons. It is said that when Apollo and his sister Artemis were born on the island of Delos, their mother Leto clung to a palm tree. In his exposition of the tree alphabet in The White Goddess, Robert Graves would have it that the palm is the Mediterranean equivalent of the silver fir, the southern and northern birth-trees respectively. Doubtless there would be symbolic considerations as well as pragmatic ones. Certainly one would expect the birth-tree of preference to vary from place to place.

 

In the Qur'an, it is said that Isa (Jesus) ibn Maryam was born as his mother clung alone to the bole of a date palm (Maryam 25). Since this story differs from accounts of the nativity in Christian scripture and tradition, it is worth asking where Muhammad might have got this idea from. It is just possible that it reflects contemporary birthing-practice among Badawi (Bedouin) women.

Tomorrow we'll be going up to the Fawn Lake Tree Farm to cut this year's Yule tree. When I place the terra-cotta Mother on Her birthing stool beneath its branches, the echoes of that act will be long ones indeed.

Immemorial.


Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Reindeer Moon (1987) Houghton Mifflin

 ___, The Old Way: A Story of the First People (2006) Farrar, Straus and Giroux