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The White Birch

Hardcover / ISBN-13: 9781472155672

Price: £16.99

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‘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.

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Reviews

'Genuinely revelatory'
Sophy Richards, TLS
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
There could be no better guide through the thickets of meaning, history and imagery that entangle with the birch tree than figurative forester Tom Jeffreys
Melissa McCarthy, author of Sharks Death Surfers
With elegance, humour, and deep insight . . . 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 and The Chernobyl Herbarium
I love the kind of book that The White Birch is. Not just for what it says and how it says it, but for the fields it unrools in order to find those things and for the journey across the unravelling plains . . . Symbols do plenty of work in Tom Jeffreys' book and he is expert in understanding them, tracking down how they dodge and change. The White Birch is an adventure story that combines the thrills of an intellectual howdunnit with visceral ordeals.
Phil Smith, Mythogeography
I loved the grafting of travel/art/cultural and social history in this engaging foray into Russia and Russianness . . . Although I've never been, by the end of this book, I felt as if I had. Tom Jeffreys is a great noticer of telling detail and brings a capacious understanding and deftness of touch to a narrative that feels to get under the skin/bark of a place and give it its distinction
Jane Feaver, author of Crazy
The White Birch is a wonderful book: at once an idiosyncratic personal journey and an erudite and clear-eyed critical study. Jeffreys is a deeply human writer and a smart and honest critic who here, splitting the timber of the Russian birch, finds his way deep into the Russian idea of Russia
Richard Smyth, author of The Woodcock and An Indifference of Birds
The White Birch may be an ostensible study of a single species of tree. But as shown, it's a lot more ambitious. Jeffreys positions himself as an obsessive slavophile and a blundering botanist, rather than a world authority on Russia. Who could be such a thing!? As a result one is very happy to enjoy this self-reflexive journey, some most erudite travel writing about a most fascinating land.
criticismism ii
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
Fascinating . . . The White Birch was a welcome surprise of a book, not just exploring nature but also this vast and complex country that so few of us in the west only glimpse from the outside and a must for anyone with an interest in Russian history
Ian Tatum, Pilgrim House
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 The White Birch
Mark Hooper, Caught by the River