Recorded on Birch Bark

My 3-4 friends and I were perhaps 12 years old. I think it was an end-of-school sleepover, and a Montana sun was shining as we wandered back to the river. We dawdled at the old picnic table near the grove of birch trees, beautiful trees with shimmery leaves. The white bark peeled into scrolls and made perfect “paper” for a secret message.

Could it become a buried secret?

We quickly assembled our materials and wrote our message, something like a “We were here!” proclamation, and then we signed our names and ages. That was back when our ages were something to proclaim. The scroll went into some kind of protector, a bandaid can perhaps? And then buried not so deep in the ground near the table. We were sworn to secrecy, of course, and sworn to never digging it up.

That experience must have been in my mind when a news story several years ago grabbed my attention. Archeological explorations in and around Veliky Novrogod, south of Petersburg in Russia, were turning up fascinating finds. The magic component of the story was mud–the wet clay soil in that area contains little oxygen. This attribute, in addition to its chemical composition, has preserved ancient artifacts, including softer materials, leading to excavations throughout the area. Finds date back to the 1200’s.

But what caught my eye was the “softer materials” that were found–more than 1,000 messages of an ancient Russian people on birch bark! Those messages yield all kinds of information. They were an amazingly literate people. Many of the messages reflect daily activities of simple people, including drawings and simple words by children. A father, Onus, wrote to his son Danilo, “Send me a shirt, towel, trousers, reins, and for my sister, send fabric….If I am alive, I will pay for it.” Humor perhaps?


From the Novgorod Kremlin, a popular tourist site with many impressive buildings, city walls, etc.

This is an old Novrogod language, a precursor to Russian. The town was founded, according to legend, in 859, and children were attending school by 1030. It has been depicted as an idealistic democracy, a major trading post, and became one of the most important cities in Europe years later. Novrogod has been described as the “motherland of Russia.” Today it’s a tourist site, full of early Russian treasures.

I live on land that was also populated by an active, productive, ancient people in the 1200’s, and actually, for thousands of years before that. I found myself wishing we had that “magic mud,” that I could run across a message as I dug up the potatoes (and perhaps the mud would do magical things for my tomatoes, as well). But then I caught myself–descendants of those early people still live in this area. The Coast Salish people carry the DNA of all those ancient generations. They continue to preserve the language, customs, foods, and values of those ancient ancestors. They are living messages for us, certainly a national treasure.

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