Nina Bußmann

A black residue one cannot get rid of, with a bluish luster. It is what drips and accumulates, reduced to ash, forming little mounds haphazardly on the hearth, or distilled deliberately, the remains of longsmoldering dead birch bark.

The ominous fortune of walking beneath a ladder, opening an umbrella indoors. Cutting a child’s hair or nails before it reaches the age of one. Whistling in the night or making a bride the present of a knife, passing a herd of sheep on the right-hand side, breaking a mirror.

Clogging and sticking, lubricating and disinfecting, pitch is viscous as birdlime, and useful for this very reason. Whether caulking a vessel of cypress, deck and hull, so that it can’t sink, won’t sink, will sink under no circumstance. So that all creatures of flesh and blood (or at least one pair of each) can be saved from the flood. Two of each of all living beings, of every form of fowl, of every type of beast, of every shape of creature that crawls the earth.

For this, people need pitch: For sealing a little basket woven of reeds, for the basket to float. For a child no longer concealed to float downstream. For cementing bricks of clay into a tower, so it may reach to the heavens, thereby making a name for ourselves; only to be scattered across the face of the earth, with our names thus dispelled.

For a man to be painted, tarred and feathered, for being dishonest, for playing the wrong hand in a game of cards. For him to be be led around daubed in the down of plucked hens for all eyes to see. For drenching a young maiden, after she is flung down a well in her lust for the gold at its bottom, or pushed by a covetous mother. For the maiden who must endure three tests, and in them her undoing: refusing to unknot the mane of a mermaid, removing bread charred from the hearth, making the bed of a hag with large teeth by fluffing the pillows till the feathers fly. For the maid who would not tame her appetite when she is faced with the fairest of choices: the piece of cake, the white room, the door of pure gold. For scouring the maiden, spoiled and dirty, in a cauldron of tar, for marring her flesh for evermore, whose blemishes shall never be erased as long as she shall live.

Of course, it would be nice to be the good daughter, never idle, without moods, airs, or temper, where the reward for one’s humility could be counted in the pearls that well from one’s lips and the gold that showers into one’s lap. Yet, how it’s done is a riddle, to this day unresolved. Instead, we know how to make pitch, from fire and from discarded wood. What a load of work: smoldering for hours or days in an air-tight single or double pot, there is plenty that can go wrong in the process. But of course, you will know this for a fact if you choose to make birch-pitch in your own backyard: Filling a sealed tin with bark, placing it in a buried pot underground, lighting a fire on top, and waiting for at least an hour and a day, tending the embers for the bonding process, unearthing the container, and if fortune and omen bode well, finally the yellow smoke rising from the pot with its gentle hint of sulfur.

It is worth something, always good for something, one can mend pots, set traps and close cracks. It is easy to melt – and once warm – mold in one’s fingers. When cold, it is a solid chunk, whereupon it may be broken with a hammer and splinter into a thousand pieces, hard as teeth or glass. However, appearances are often deceitful. For fiftyeight years, a cylinder with a hole in its bottom has been filled with cold pitch at the University of Queensland, Australia. Every eight to twelve years, it lets a drop fall. Happening so fast no one has ever seen it with their own eyes, the next drop is always forming. Images testify that the pitch is dripping from the eye of the funnel, each drop tapering at the top, swelling at the bottom into a little sphere. Only a few years and it surrenders to gravity.

One could paint the branch of a tree, and wait, arms crossed, for a bird to fly up, alight, and stick fast. It could be plucked like a ripe apple, without resistance, plucked and placed – juicy as a roast pigeon – straight into one’s mouth. Another wicker basket sealed, another child abandoned, another skyscraper built, another ship caulked that will never sink. Setting traps, filling the vats and basins of hell. Fastening arrows that catch fire at the tips of their shafts. Arrowheads of flint that cling to shafts of viburnum like those used by Ötzi the Iceman of Hauslabjoch, until he came to his end at Simulaun.

There is proof for all this: The residue of birch-pitch can be found at the bottom of ancient wells – one need only look – on harnesses, wheels, clay pots and on shards. On weapons and on the bones and skulls of men, who did not yet know the use of harnesses or crockery. There are clumps and mounds of pitch, and little wads with bite marks. No clues as to what it was chewed for, whether for dental hygiene, to grind material or for sheer pleasure.

* In German, »Pech« is also bad luck.