July 28, 2019

Beyond Bears: The Birds and the B(irch Tr)ees


Beyond Bears: The Birds and the B(irch Tr)ees
“Feel yourself Russian” (a cute and common slight mistranslation) while walking a birch-lined trail at Tolstoy’s estate. Katrina Keegan

On a train from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok in the Far East, conversations with my travelling companions turned to the endless wilderness around us. One young woman from a small town in the area said that she had seen a tiger once as it was crossing the street. However, for most of us, the closest we will ever get to Russia’s famous wildlife are fun stories about bears. (Admittedly, we contribute to a lot of them). 

Graffiti tiger in front of church in Vladivostok
Conservationist graffiti: the closest I will likely ever get to a Russian tiger. / Katrina Keegan 

Setting ambitions lower than tigers and bears (oh my), perhaps we can settle for Russia’s best-known trees: pine and birch. Birch trees hold a special place in our hearts for being the most common beating branches used at the banya, and also for being the host of one of Russia’s most commonly gathered mushrooms, the aptly named подберезовики (literally, “beneath the birch”). 

Pine trees growing out of boats
Not a stereotypical look for Russian pine trees in Krasnoyarsk. / Katrina Keegan

But how about getting beyond stereotypes entirely? Here are 14 members of Russia’s natural community that, while not as famous as birches or bears, are familiar to anyone who has spent a bit of summer in Russia. 

1. Poplar trees

Every June, it seems like someone burst an enormous pillow over the entire country. The white fluffy “pukh” blowing through the air and collecting all over the sidewalks are the seeds of female poplar trees. The fast-growing trees were mass-planted in many Soviet cities after World War II, to add greenery to the rapidly developing neighborhoods. Much to the chagrin of those with seasonal allergies, the recommendation to plant only the non-fluff producing male trees was not always followed. 

Poplar tree fluff on sidewalk in Irkutsk
The fluffy phenomenon stretches thousands of miles, from Moscow to here in Irkutsk / Katrina Keegan

2. Whitewashed trunks

The former Soviet Union has a strange tradition of whitewashing the bottoms of trees each spring. The reasoning behind this practice ranges from “that’s just how it is done” aesthetics of looking nice and neat – like inverting the white top black bottom of good young communists, according to one site – to the health of the trees, protecting them from sunburns and harmful critters; to letting drivers know where the edges of roads are without street lights at night. Critics say that it is at best a colossal waste of time and at worst harmful to the trees; it is now illegal in Moscow and some other cities. 

Whitewashed tree trunks
Biting words of one critic: “Whitewashing does not make the trees happy, it makes the uneducated souls of the public official happy.” / Artem Skrypchenko | Livejournal

3. Plantains

An unassuming weed growing throughout the world on the sides of roads was elevated to the status of official name for the St. Petersburg metro card. The Russian word for them, подорожник, literally means “by the road,” so it sort of makes sense. 

Podorozhnik St. Petersburg metro cards
Holy cow, it’s a card named after a weed! (Holy cow is the literal translation of the word for ladybug, божья коровка, in Russian.) / Podorozhnik.sbp.ru

4. Lilac

Anyone who has visited Moscow’s Gorky Park in May or June likely has a strong olfactory memory. Dozens of blooming lilac bushes fill the air with a smell of relaxation, mystery, and beauty. Actually, that goes for most of Moscow, and cities throughout Russia for that matter. 

Lilac near skate park Novosibirsk
Lilac bushes near a skate park in Novosibirsk | Katrina Keegan

5. Currants and bilberries

You may actually know them better by their Russian names of смородина and черника, because these small, round berries gathered from the forests and sold on street corners are far more common in Russia than North America. 

Frozen wild bilberries
Frozen wild bilberries. My host mother in St. Petersburg gathered and froze so many, I ate my kasha (oatmeal) with them all year long. / Monika Grabkowska | Unsplash

6. Лисички

Speaking of things gathered in Russian forests, these golden, frilly cup-shaped mushrooms don’t even have a non-Latin name in English, but they are part of the chanterelle family. 

Russian mushrooms lisichki
A hard day’s work gathering лисички, pine needles and all. / Kaserei | Pixaby 

7. Fly agaric

This is a mushroom you might run into less frequently at the market than подберезовики or лисички – just because, you know, of its tendency to give people hallucinations – but no less iconic. Fly agaric, or мухоморы in Russian, is native to Russia and was used for thousands of years by Siberian shamans in ceremonies. (Which may actually be an origin story for Santa Claus… they grow under pine trees, and reindeer like them too.) More recently, they play a key role in Victor Pelevin’s modern classic Generation P, and they even made the cut to join the Grand Maket in St. Petersburg, a giant train model of Russia. 

Fly agaric mushroom in forest
A fly agaric mushroom in the wild near St. Petersburg. / Katrina Keegan

8. European firebugs

Speaking of things that are red and spotted, if you have lived in Russia during the summer you have probably squashed hundreds of these. The солдатики (“little soldiers” in Russian) do not defend themselves well from feet. 

European firebug graffiti
Firebug graffiti artwork in the Russian city of Penza. / AAA333 | Wikimedia

9. Бабочка боярышница

Carcasses of translucent “Lady Butterflies” are unfortunately also a common sight in Russia (especially along Siberian roadsides on hot summer days), but ,when alive, the butterflies are a photographer’s bread and butter. 

Lady butterfly on flower
A lady-like pose for the camera. / Zeynel Cebeci | Wikimedia

10. Grey and brown doves

That is, pigeons. Let it sink in for a moment that you have been discriminating against the same bird just because of the color of their feathers. If you feel guilty about it, you can move to Russia, where the word for both pigeons and doves is the same – голубь – and where people actually seem to like the birds, frequently feeding and even housing them. 

A pigeon house in a park
A public pigeon house in Krasnoyarsk. | Katrina Keegan

11. Grey crows

Many flocks of pigeons have a couple of grey crows, native to Eastern Europe, hanging around as well. 

Grey crow in front of apartment buildings
Crowing over conquered urban lands of Russia / Andrey Salov | Youtube

12. Stray dogs

Once upon a 1990s, packs of stray dogs in Russia could command their territory just as well as packs of people, i.e. gangs. The difference was that the dogs would mostly mind their own business. Now you see less of both of them in major cities. 

Stray dog in front of a newsstand in Kislovodsk
Sadly, the news about these mostly harmless dogs is very negative. / Katrina Keegan

13. Wandering farm animals

Russia certainly does not have a unique claim on stray chickens crossing the road, but Russians sure do put an unusually high amount of faith in their animals to make it to the other side, and back home again, all by themselves. 

Goat in front of river and church in Suzdal
This native of Suzdal has no owner in sight. | Katrina Keegan

14. Urban fish

The item on this list most likely to be a myth. I’ve never seen one, but a lot of people are convinced they exist. 

Ice fisherman in St. Petersburg
An ice fisherman on the Neva River, in front of the Winter Palace, Admiralty, St. Isaac’s Cathedral and Rostral Columns (hard to get more urban than that) in St. Petersburg. | Katrina Keegan

 

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