Every spring, during the “green holy days” that follow the Trinity, the Russian Orthodox holiday marking the appearance of Jesus to the Apostles after his resurrection, some Russians venture into forests with clippers, and knives, and big canvas sacks.
They seek out young birch trees in a grove near a lake, or river — trees whose branches are pliant, lush. They cut off segments of about a foot and a half, two feet; they cut the twigs cleanly, never yank or twist them off. Then they place the cuttings in the canvas sack and keep going, until it is filled.
When they get home they let the twigs dry, for hours, in the air. They choose about one to two dozen and lay them on top of each other, pointed in the same direction. They place the thicker twigs in the middle, bounded on both sides by thinner twigs; the natural curve of the twigs must face inward, toward the thicker twigs, which helps strike a balance between stiffness and flexibility.
Then they strip the leaves from the fat ends, forming a handle of about six to eight inches. They bind the fat ends with another twig – or a strip of tree bark, or string, or even wire, whatever is at hand.
The handle is solid, firm. The leafy top is supple: the twigs bend, and the leaves rustle, when swiped through the air.
When they are done binding all the branches they hang the bundles, leafy ends down, from nails or a rope strung below the roof in a shed, or barn. Sometimes they fold the bundles into bales of hay, the aroma of which complements that of the naturally fragrant leaves. (In cities they store the bundles in plastic bags in a refrigerator, or freezer. In winter they store them on a balcony.)
Then they wait till the bundles lay flat in the shape of a fan.
Not everyone waits, though. In June, some bathers carry fresh birch
veniki into the steam room. These bundles are soft, almost velvety. The scent is overpowering, bitter.
But mostly bathers wait – till the leaves of the bundles crinkle, till their green color mellows like paint on a sun-drenched wall.